Designer Notes #63: Josh Sawyer – Part 2

In this episode, Soren interviews veteran RPG designer Josh Sawyer, best known for his work on Icewind Dale, Fallout: New Vegas, and Pillars of Eternity. They discuss the purpose of grinding, the difference between viable and optimal characters, and why RPG players don’t welcome rebalancing their games. This episode was recorded March 24, 2018.

Games discussed: Baldur’s Gate series, Icewind Dale series, Neverwinter Nights, Fallout series, Civilization series, Gauntlet: Seven Sorrows, Neverwinter Nights 2, Alpha Protocol, Fallout: New Vegas, Pillars of Eternity series, Into the Breach, Torchbearer, Tyranny, Darkest Dungeon, Phantom Doctrine

https://www.idlethumbs.net/designernotes/episodes/josh-sawyer-part-2

Designer Notes #62: Josh Sawyer – Part 1

In this episode, Soren interviews veteran RPG designer Josh Sawyer, best known for his work on Icewind Dale, Fallout: New Vegas, and Pillars of Eternity. They discuss how making a website for a tattoo parlor led to his game career, what is the purpose of traps in an RPG, and how much lore is too much lore. This episode was recorded March 24, 2018.

Games discussed: Adventure, Ultima series, Bard’s Tale series, Gold Box series, Dungeons & Dragons, Pillars of Eternity, Tyranny, Darklands, Quake, Planescape Torment, Icewind Dale series, Baldur’s Gate series

https://www.idlethumbs.net/designernotes/episodes/josh-sawyer-part-1

Designer Notes #61: Chet Faliszek

In this episode, Soren interviews veteran game developer Chet Faliszek, who co-founded Stray Bombay and is best known for his work at Valve on games such as Left 4 Dead and Portal 2. They discuss what shampoo sales have to do with Old Man Murray, why he tests his games in a foreign language, and why game design is easier for co-op games. This episode was recorded August 17, 2021.

Games discussed: Pong, Tecmo Bowl, Civilization series, Archon, M.U.L.E., Racing Destruction Set, Gin, Hearts, Doom, Quake, Tribes, Myth, Half-Life 2, Team Fortress 2, Left 4 Dead, Old World, Left 4 Dead 2, Portal 1, Portal 2, Counterstrike, Half-Life: Alyx, Crusader Kings series, The Anacrusis, Deep Rock Galactic, Killing Floor 2, Risk of Rain 2, Payday 2, GTFO, Hades

https://www.idlethumbs.net/designernotes/episodes/chet-faliszek

Designer Notes #60: Andy Schatz – Part 2

In this episode, Soren interviews independent game developer Andy Schatz, who founded Pocketwatch Games and is best known for his work on Monaco and Tooth and Tail. This episode was recorded March 23, 2018. They discuss what Monaco and Rashomon have in common, how familiarity with your best players can be more valuable than metrics, and why the flag bearer in Tooth and Tail can’t attack.

Games discussed: Monaco, Spore, Tooth and Tail, Whacked!, Payday, Hotline Miami, Minecraft, Terraria, Pikmin, Offworld Trading Company

https://www.idlethumbs.net/designernotes/episodes/andy-schatz-part-2

Old World Designer Notes #11: The End

The following is an excerpt from the Designer Notes for Old World. The game, a historical 4X set in classical antiquity, released on July 1, 2021, and is available for purchase here.

The hardest part of a 4X to design is the ending. Truthfully, no one has ever done this well, and during development I often reminded myself of the old joke about how you don’t need to be fast to avoid getting eaten by a bear – you just need to be faster than the person next to you. I don’t think it’s possible for a 4X game to consistently provide a satisfying, climactic ending; the genre’s strengths come from the vast possibility space, the lack of guardrails, and a commitment to reward smart play fairly. All of these factors make a good ending harder to achieve consistently. Once the turn count reaches well into the hundreds, it’s almost impossible to predict what the game state will be, so where to draw the finish line is, at best, a guess.

Indeed, I generally view victory conditions as a necessary evil. Without them, a 4X game suddenly becomes an aimless simulation where the players set their own goals. Simulations can be great games, but they tend not to be a good format for turn-based games with transparent game mechanics. They work better in real-time with their systems hidden inside black boxes; the lack of control is key to keeping the player on the edge. (Thus, Paradox grand strategy games follow this model.) Old World is a game, not a simulation, so it needs victory conditions; however, I have grown disenchanted with the increasing specialization of victory conditions in 4X games, which provide a path to victory by just focusing on one aspect of the game, such as culture, religion, or diplomacy. The problem with these victory conditions is that they are so specialized that the player needs to aim for them from the beginning of the game, which turns their play into an exercise in predetermination. Want the religious victory? Then make sure to always choose the religious option!

Hence, themed victory conditions were out for Old World, but we needed something in place, especially since we were playing MP within a few months of early prototyping. The simplest solution was just good old-fashioned victory points, which have the advantage of supporting multiple play styles while also providing a faster victory for a dominant player. We attached points to cities and to wonders (and later to culture levels and techs at the end of the tree), so that the game would instantly end when a player passed the threshold determined at the start of the game. It worked extremely well from a mechanical perspective, which is all we needed for early MP testing before the game even had characters, families, and events. We were surprised that victory points had never been tried in a Civ game but realized that the city site system enabled it to work. Because we knew the exact number of sites on the map at the beginning of the game, coming up with a point threshold for victory was a fairly straightforward calculation; in a game with unlimited cities, victory points would just be one more mechanic pushing players to squeeze in as many cities as possible.

Of course, while victory points were a perfectly functional victory condition and might work fine in multiplayer, they are not particularly interesting, especially for a game where the player is purportedly creating the story of their dynasty. I wanted a victory condition that would dynamically adapt to the path the player’s game actually took; the player would need to achieve many tasks to win, but these tasks could be chosen on the fly, and the player could change directions, turning away from a militaristic victory to a more peaceful one. The direct inspiration came from Jetpack Joyride, which showed the benefits of giving the player a random selection from a large and diverse set of missions. In this infinite runner mobile game, players are always given three “missions” which encourage them to play the game in an unusual way (“Have a near miss with a missile” or “Rub your head against the roof for 500 meters”), which is a surprisingly effective way to change the feel of a game that one might play over and over again hundreds of times. By redefining the player’s goal from just surviving as long as possible to something fresh and unusual, the game itself was constantly mutating for the player, making it much more replayable. A set of varied goals is now standard practice in mobile gaming, and if it can work for a game played with a thumb, it can also work for a 4X game. In Old World, missions could push the player to try out new paths and strategies – if a mission requires me to build eight shrines, for example, maybe I’ll try out pagan religion for the first time?

The first implementation of ambitions functioned similarly to the missions of Jetpack Joyride – the player drew three random missions at a time which rewarded the player with Legitimacy, a value representing the achievements of your dynasty. The other sources of Legitimacy are the cognomens of your current and former leaders, with diminishing values each time there is a new succession, and from event choices, giving the writers an interesting lever for short-term decisions that damage your standing. (At their best, these events can highlight the cultural gulf between Classical Antiquity and today – that your people should always look to you for their answers, not to some foreign discovery or faith.) Legitimacy provides two effects that are key to making the game work – each point of Legitimacy gives a tenth of an Order per turn and +1 opinion to all of your families. The former was important as a simple way to slowly increase the Orders pool as the number of units grew, although certainly at less than a linear rate. The latter was important as a consistent way to counterbalance negative family opinion from city Discontent, suggesting a simple equation where the player needs to accomplish greater and greater tasks to make up for the natural tendency of each family to want more and more cities and favors and gifts.

The ambitions themselves automatically become harder and harder as the player fulfills old ones and draws new ones. Each ambition has a tier range so that they are not part of the ambition deck until you have, for example, completed more than two ambitions but less than five. Thus, the ambitions keep pace with the player’s progress in a very natural manner, assuming the tier ranges are correct. Drawing inspiration from the ambition system in Crusader Kings, we eventually attached the ambitions not to the nation but to the leader, each ambition would be a major goal that they try to accomplish in their lifetime (which then led to legacies, which are ambitions successors can finish for a limited time after the leader’s death).

We now had a dynamic and robust ambition system which fed the leader increasingly difficult goals to achieve. The last step was to tie it to a victory condition, and the answer turned out to be right in front of our faces. The original pitch for the game was that one game session lasted literally ten lives, the first ten rulers of a dynasty. Hence, the working title of the game was 10 Crowns as a metaphor for ten lives (and using numerical digits because I had maniacal plans to make sure the game was listed first in any alphabetical game library). However, I never revealed publicly why the game was called 10 Crowns (although Allen Cook guessed correctly on the Gamers with Jobs podcast shortly after the announcement). I kept it a secret because I wasn’t sure playing ten rulers would actually work, and it turned out I was right. Good old-fashioned randomness meant that ten rulers could last 50 turns, or they could last 500 turns. There’s just no way to balance a game with that much variability, and I was afraid to put my thumb on the scale and start covertly killing off rulers who had overstayed their time on the throne. However, I now had a simple solution to make the name 10 Crowns work – the “Crowns” would now be the ten ambitions you needed for victory, not the ten rulers of your dynasty! Problem solved –  I took the rest of the day off!

Unfortunately, the team didn’t buy it and staged another mutiny where they expressed their very reasonable concerns that ambitions were not “Crowns” and vice-versa. I suggested renaming ambitions to crowns, but it was too late. We needed a new name, and we needed it soon as we were shipping as an Early Access title in a couple months. I considered calling it The Great, but there was apparently some Hulu show about Catherine the Great in production (which turned out to be amazing, by the way). Someone threw out the name Old World, which was stupidly close to Offworld and yet also the perfect name for a game from this era – simple, accurate, and evocative. I did the research and was surprised that no one had ever made a game called Old World although there was apparently some MMO being made by Amazon called New World? That seemed hardly worth considering because Amazon always conveniently cancels their project before shipping (or, just to mix it up, sometimes after shipping), so I shrugged that one off!

So, we had our new name, Old World, but in the process we had accidentally hit upon a victory condition that was varied, dynamic, and thematic – simply complete ten ambitions and achieve victory. We weren’t quite done yet, however, because there wasn’t actually a way to lose the game. Obviously, the AI could still wipe the player out, but the real problem would be if the player falls behind and gets stuck in purgatory where the AI is dominant and the higher-tier ambitions are too difficult to achieve. I spent a lot of time waving my hands and talking about how the Paradox games didn’t even have victory conditions! We were being so old-fashioned! Gamers today set their own goals! Kids, go outside and make your own fun!

Of course, one might ask, wouldn’t the player lose if the AI fulfills their ten ambitions first? Well, they would if the AI actually got ambitions, but I knew that would be a mistake. One of the other problems with specialized victory conditions is that because they either measure internal progress (cultural or scientific victory) or something orthogonal to most of the game (religious or even diplomatic victory), an AI victory can come as a sudden surprise. I was sure of one thing above all – a surprise ending to a 20-hour 4X game is not a good ending. Without ambition victories, the AI would clearly be playing a different game from the human, which meant that Old World would be an asymmetrical game. In reality, it just meant that we were admitting that the game was asymmetrical because there is no such thing as a symmetrical 4X game. The genre likes to pretend that it’s symmetrical, like chess or most board games, but a single-player 4X always orbits the human.

The most obvious place that proves this fact is diplomacy. I’ve already discussed how tech trading needs to be controlled to make sure the AIs don’t play like humans, but the same pattern is true across all diplomatic decisions; humans will not accept AIs which behave like humans. For example, in a free-for-all multiplayer game, no one would find it unusual for the losing players to gang up on the leader (including by former allies) to stop that player from winning. On the other hand, most people hate it when the AIs automatically declare war on the human as the player gets close to winning. (I say most people because there is a small minority of players that prefer AIs to play like humans, which is why we added the Play to Win option.) The only difference between these two scenarios is whether the player is facing other humans or their own machine, so the AIs are coded to play like NPCs in the human’s playground, to follow their personalities and remember their friends/enemies but not to try to win at all cost. This arrangement between humans and AIs is inherently asymmetrical, and there are plenty of other ways humans play that AIs should never replicate, such as leaving their cities empty of defensive units because they know exactly when their enemies might or might not attack (or that a war declaration could be easily undone with a recent auto-save). Furthermore, there is nothing inherently superior about symmetrical games versus asymmetrical ones. In fact, even though board games are usually thought of as symmetrical by default, much of the most interesting design work in the current tabletop renaissance is with deeply assymetrical games.

The trick is knowing where symmetry is important. Combat, for example, needs to maintain perfect symmetry as the human interacts directly with the AI using the same pieces on the same tiles with the same rules – the more the player needs to understand the AI’s potential actions, the more important symmetry becomes. By stepping away from the myth of human-AI symmetry, we could also create a competitive game without giving the AI any per-turn production or research advantages, which is the normal way to strengthen the AI in 4X games. Instead, in Old World, the AI simply starts with more cities than the human does as the difficulty levels increase but otherwise plays by the same rules for city growth, unit production, tech research, and so on. The situation was even thematic for the era as the player is basically in the same situation as Rome at its founding – a single city surrounded by much older and much more established empires. You are leading a new people in an old world.

Although the AI could not have ambition victory, they still need a way to win to make sure Old World is a game and not a simulation. Fortunately, the answer was already available via the original victory point system we implemented for multiplayer. By simply leaving the victory point system on, the game could handle situations where an AI starts to dominate. At competitive difficulty levels, VPs serve as a dynamic game timer that the player is racing against to fulfill their ten ambitions. Victory points also handle the opposite situation, where the player starts to dominate, via double victory, which triggers when the player doubles the score of the next closest AI. Double victory helps Old World avoid the worst of a common problem once victory is certain but the player still needs to push End Turn fifty more times.

Thus, ambition victory centers the game on the achievements of the player’s dynasty. Indeed, we hope to push this further in future updates by using the event system. The player will get opportunities for new ambitions not by picking a random ambition for each family but via handwritten events customized to the current situation. Maybe the Romans kill the unit your queen is leading in the field, and the game gives you a new ambition to get revenge by killing Roman units or capturing their cities. Ambitions and events can be a powerful framework to help the player build their story of victory. When the system works together as a cohesive whole, the game truly comes alive. An unanticipated strategy has emerged in multiplayer that shows the system at its best. Negative cognomens, such as the Unready or the Bloody, are possible if a ruler loses enough units and cities to outweigh their positive accomplishments, and a negative cognomen will reduce the player’s Legitimacy, which can be devastating. Thus, players discovered that the best time to attack is when there is a new ruler on the opponent’s throne who hasn’t achieved anything yet, saddling them with a negative cognomen from the war losses. It’s a cunning strategy, and one reflected in real history where wars were often started to take advantage of a new ruler with a shaky hold on the throne. As a designer, this mirroring is difficult to achieve, and I’ve fallen short of it many times, intentionally or not, but I don’t mind celebrating these moments when they do happen. Opportunities like this don’t come along everyday.

Old World Designer Notes #10: Diplomacy

The following is an excerpt from the Designer Notes for Old World. The game, a historical 4X set in classical antiquity, released on July 1, 2021, and is available for purchase here.

Some mistakes are inevitable because the idea behind them is so hard to resist. When tasked with improving diplomacy in Civ 3 – and not just in comparison to Civ 2 but to Alpha Centauri as well – the most obvious decision was to add a bargaining table, where players can customize their deals as much as desired. Instead of relying on the AI to suggest interesting deals, the player could pick and choose whatever they liked – gold and iron for a city, or a luxury for a technology, or some gold each turn for open borders and a map, or any other combination. It was one of the standout features of Civ 3 and became a standard feature of the 4X genre. Unfortunately, it was a big mistake.

The first issue that appeared was how quickly the AI traded technologies with each other. I had allowed the AI to trade techs freely because the human was now free to do so via the bargaining table. The problem was that unhindered tech trading will always be problematic because the player that “gives away” the tech is not really giving away anything. The only downside is that a rival is getting access to a tech, but the usual rationale is that if you don’t give the Babylonians Ironworking, then someone else will do so, and you’ll just miss out on whatever you would have gotten from them. Even worse, if you didn’t play the tech trading game, the AIs would make the trades anyway, and it would appear to the human like you were playing against a cartel of AIs that all seemed to be at the same tech level. According to the rules of the game, the AIs were just playing optimally; the problem was that the rules were bad.

With Civ 4, I made a number of changes to improve the bargaining table. Tech trading was severely limited by making the AI unwilling to trade techs with players they disliked (or even just didn’t like enough). They would also simply refuse to trade techs with players who were in the lead, and as these rules applied to humans and AIs equally, the worst excesses were avoided. The system also prevented trading lump-sum items for per-turn ones, so no more taking a giant loan from a neighbor and then declaring war to get out of the payments. Players could now ask the AI to fill in either side of a deal so that, in order to play optimally, you weren’t forced to add 1 gold to either side to see if the deal crossed the magic threshold.

However, the system was still fundamentally flawed because it gave the player too much control over diplomacy. The best strategy remained contacting the AIs as frequently as possible to extract whatever deal was most advantageous. Diplomacy did not feel like diplomacy; it felt like walking up to a vending machine and picking the option that suited you best. Players were ruining the game for themselves by playing optimally, however boring that might be. Diplomacy had become simply another part of your economy, a reliable source of gold or technology or resources, depending on what you needed. Ideally, diplomacy would be unpredictable at times, would be outside of the player’s control although still reactive to the game state, and would allow the player to be opportunistic but also force them to face difficult decisions.

Fortunately, Old World had a system in place that could do all of those things easily – namely, the event system, which is both inherently unpredictable yet also reactive to the current game state. The event system became more flexible and robust the longer we worked on it, and we already used it for both the tutorial system (teaching you about harvesting the first time your Scout steps onto a neutral resource) and the mission system (every assassination has a small chance of triggering an event which can spin the game off in unpredictable directions). Using events to manage all diplomatic interactions between the human and the AI was perhaps a risky decision – players had gotten so used to the bargaining table that leaving it out could come across as a step backwards – but it would make diplomacy more dynamic and also force us to expand the event system to include more diplomatic triggers, requirements, and effects, which could pay off in the long run for scenarios.

The first step was handling all diplomatic changes (war, truce, peace, alliance) via the mission system, which would then trigger an event when the mission was complete. Thus, the event system would need to know about the proximity of different nations, their relative strengths, and the current state of any war (who is winning and by how much). The event options would need to be able to set diplomatic states, handle trade and tribute, and add memories and relationships which modify opinions. Each of these elements might not have been part of the event system if it wasn’t responsible for diplomacy, but once they were added, they could be used for any event, making the whole system more varied and robust. Once all the diplomatic elements were in place, the event system could do all the work of a traditional 4X diplomatic system but with the upside of all the other features of events, such as testing to see if your spouse was from their nation or if you share a religion or if one of your cities used to belong to them.

Because diplomacy was now less predictable, it was important that the player couldn’t ask for something too frequently, or else the player would be encouraged to keep trying until they got the event they wanted (exchanging a vending machine for a slot machine). To avoid this problem, we gave diplomatic relations (such as asking for peace or a trade deal) a cost in Civics or Training, and we also limited diplomacy to missions that could be conducted by your Ambassador. Not only did this bring another character to the forefront, always a good thing in Old World, but it meant that only one diplomatic mission could be pursued at a time and, more importantly, that missions would take multiple years to produce a result. The latter was important so that players were not tempted to use the undo system to reverse unsuccessful diplomatic missions and maybe offer tribute to end a war instead (in other words, trying to protect the player from themselves). Of course, the most unpredictable aspect of diplomacy is if your ambassador dies in the middle of a mission (although we do warn players before they send a sick ambassador to ask for a truce).

I was actually expecting more pushback from players for the lack of a bargaining table (the inability to found cities anywhere has been more controversial), so I hope that players appreciate how much the event system makes diplomacy more dynamic and unpredictable. Unlike many other systems I’ve designed, the health of the diplomatic system rests not just on the quality of the underlying algorithms but on the simple quantity of diplomatic events our writers have created, and by this metric the system will only get better as our writers add new events with each weekly update.

Old World Designer Notes #9: Events

The following is an excerpt from the Designer Notes for Old World. The game, a historical 4X set in classical antiquity, released on July 1, 2021, and is available for purchase here.

After finishing Civ 3, I spent a long period of time engaged with the community to learn what they did and didn’t like about the game, with an eye towards the patches and a potential sequel down the road. In the modding community, a common complaint was that our editor lacked something called “events” from Civ 2, which I learned meant a system for connecting triggers and effects that could give games a narrative arc. I didn’t immediately grasp the potential of such a system until I tried out the community scenarios. I remember two that stood out to me because my actions pushed the story forward – one recreated the journey to Moria in Fellowship of the Ring and the other was a retelling of Odysseus’s Mediterranean wanderings in The Odyssey. Neither was particularly replayable, but they both were interesting because they had functional stories built from only a layer of events sitting on top of the base game.

For awhile, I wasn’t sure what to do with this discovery because I didn’t have a clear vision for how events could make a Civ game better, but I did ensure that our Python layer for Civ 4 had both triggers (calls from C++ to stub Python functions) and effects (the stub functions could change the game state). This system led to many interesting Civ 4 mods and scenarios as well as allowing the team to write a series of events for Beyond the Sword, many of which focused on natural disasters. While these events were a first for the series, it also represented a bit of an evolutionary dead end as they were not carried forward into Civ 5.

Nonetheless, I believed that events could play an interesting role in 4X gaming, and indeed noticed that many other strategy games, including the Galactic Civilization series, the Crusader Kings series, and Stellaris, were using them more and more frequently. However, my biggest inspiration came from the most text-heavy genre of them all – interactive fiction. The genre was experiencing a renaissance in the UK, led by Inkle (80 Days, the Sorcery series) and Failbetter (Fallen London, Sunless Sea), and I began to quietly haunt the GDC Narrative Summit while also interviewing the writer/designers for my podcast to see what I could learn. I also finally found a physical copy of King of Dragon Pass, a cult hit from the 90s that was still unavailable online, perhaps akin to finding a disc of The Velvet Underground’s Loaded before mp3s. The game was a wild mix of traditional 4X strategy, clan management simulation, and dynamic narrative built around random events that triggered based on hidden factors and which had unknown effects (but which the player would slowly learn to anticipate).

I began to appreciate how important narrative could be in a video game, how it could pull players into a game world much more effectively than by simply making numbers go up, a trick that was perhaps starting to get old in 4X gaming. To be clear, I had no interest in writing a story with imaginary characters and a beginning, middle, and end (Who did I think I was? A writer?!?), and I was also fairly uncomfortable with opaque triggers and effects which kept players in the dark, forcing them to play by feel. Transparency is an important part of my design aesthetic, and while it could be violated for effect occasionally, I didn’t want to build an entire system around it.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, inspiration came to me via board games, specifically Tales of the Arabian Nights, a brilliant adventure game built around the ancient folktales of the Middle East. The game comes with a giant storybook of over 2,000 events (some by Paul Murphy, writer on Civ 3, in fact) which are randomly drawn from a deck of cards and then cross-referenced with the character’s location, the player’s decision, and the roll of a dice. Although another player would read the event to create suspense and hide the outcome of the choices, the exact mechanics of how the game chose each event was transparent by necessity as the players did the work of finding each event themselves. The readers would see how the events were constructed and what would have happened if the active character possessed a certain trait, so that they in turn would anticipate the range of possibilities on their own turn.

The game had an interesting system for linking events via loose connections based on skills, traits, or treasures the character picked up over the course of the game. A character might become Ensorcelled early in the game, have the result of a later event change based on being Ensorcelled, and finally have the opportunity to remove the trait with a further event. None of these events were necessarily going to happen during a single playthrough and, often, potential narrative arcs were left dangling without resolution. Nonetheless, when a cohesive series of randomly chosen events do come together to tell a real story, it’s a magical feeling. What appealed to me about this system was that it was robust; there was no intricate event tree that could fail if one node was changed or stopped working. Furthermore, loosely coupled events could be written by a large group of authors who could work in parallel without close coordination. One writer might add an event which results in your leader becoming a Drunk, and a different writer could add an event that requires the leader to be a Drunk (or, if so, forces the player to take a certain option), and these two writers have now created a little story without having discussed anything. Indeed, they could have been working years apart and perhaps not even know each other. I am very excited for the potential of community event packs which can co-exist with our 3,000+ events (and with each other) to create new narrative possibilities.

Thus, I had the basic blueprint for an event system – it would be a virtual deck of event cards which each had a potential trigger (such as meeting a new nation), a set of requirements (a childless leader), and possible effects (a foreign spouse). When a trigger occurs, the game finds all events in the deck valid for the current game state and then chooses one randomly based on the weight, probability, and priority values of each event. The backbone of the event system are the subjects, which are a set of game objects randomly chosen for each potential event. Subjects can be anything from a character to a city to a family and even to a law or technology. Each subject can have multiple tests to find the perfect one – an adult child of the leader who is NOT the heir but IS a bloodthirsty schemer is a good example of a very specific subject that might mean bad things for the current heir. Further, the system can test for relationships between subjects, such as two nations that are at war with each other, the religion of your spouse, or a character who is vengeful against another. The event options can affect any of the subjects and can also be unlocked based on the current ratings or traits of the leader.

There are many other wrinkles to the system – for example, it is possible to link subjects together for multi-step events such as a duel – but this basic architecture enabled the writing team, led by Leyla Johnson, to create a wide variety of events that fundamentally change the flow of the game. Dynamic random events disrupt the steady flow of a 4X game, which can often devolve into deciding which bucket should fill up and at what speed. Perhaps an event provides a sudden burst of Orders that allows the player to move enough units to defend a city that was just about to fall. Or, perhaps sending one of your children out to explore the world leads to the founding of a new world religion. Or, perhaps a severe combat injury means that Alexander will need to abandon the field and become the Learned instead. A common theme of Old World’s design is avoiding predictable and boring games where the same actions lead to the same results, and the event system is an important tool to ensure no two games are ever the same.

Designer Notes #59: Andy Schatz – Part 1

In this episode, Soren interviews independent game developer Andy Schatz, who founded Pocketwatch Games and is best known for his work on Monaco and Tooth and Tail. This episode was recorded March 23, 2018. They discuss how he tried to live out Ultima’s virtues, why no one was ever able to rip-off The Sims, and why we both hate click-the-stick.

Games discussed: Ultima series, Minecraft, Halo, X-COM, Star Trek: Hidden Evil, Whacked!, The Sims, GoldenEye: Rogue Agent, Wildlife Tycoon: Venture Africa, Wildlife Tycoon: Venture Arctic, Monaco, Geometry Wars

https://www.idlethumbs.net/designernotes/episodes/andy-schatz-part-1

Old World Designer Notes #8: Opinion

The following is an excerpt from the Designer Notes for Old World. The game, a historical 4X set in classical antiquity, released on July 1, 2021, and is available for purchase here.

One of the defining features of 4X games with an Eternal China Syndrome is that the conflict primarily comes from external sources, from barbarians and rival nations. With certain random maps or diplomatic situations, players can often be in a position where they are largely unchallenged, and without any other pressure, the game slowly slides into auto-pilot. Old World addresses this problem by adding internal pressure from families and religions, each of which have their own opinion of you, just like a foreign power.

Making internal opinions matter requires a pair of mechanics – how the opinion is determined and how it affects the game. Designing the latter was the easier task as family opinions could simply affect cities and units if they each had a specific family type. Thus, each new city would be assigned a family, and units produced by that city would also be attached to that family. Then, each city and unit could get various bonuses and penalties depending on the opinion of the family itself. Cites belonging to a friendly family have reduced Maintenance, units of an angry family have a combat penalty, and so on. Perhaps most importantly for family opinions thematically, an unhappy family has a chance of producing rebel units which are capable of capturing cities if not defeated.

Attaching units to a family was a much debated topic as doing so made it even more difficult to differentiate units of each nation and tribe. There are only so many team colors available, and using a secondary color for families was only partially effective. Thus, we added a distinctive banner shape for each of the ten family classes and also did not show the family of opposing nations to simplify the mix of colors. Communicating family type is still difficult, but without assigning units to families, it would be impossible for family opinion to affect units, which risked dulling the entire system.

The trickier question is what should determine family opinion. Some modifiers were easy to add – families prefer having more cities, like having their cities closer together, like having members in the royal succession, and dislike having cities with high discontent. However, to keep things understandable, we didn’t want to add too many modifiers, so we split them up between the different family classes, which also added to their flavor: Champions prefer having the largest army, Clerics dislike cities without a religion, Patrons like having cities with Wonders, etc. A diversity of family opinion modifiers also makes it more likely that each family will have a different opinion of you, which makes for more interesting gameplay as angry families could become jealous of pleased ones, fertile ground for the game’s dynamic events.

However, although families now had opinions with inputs and outputs, the system felt very abstract; it’s harder to relate to a family than to a specific character. Further, we had a separate problem that although characters had opinions of you, the opinions didn’t seem to matter all that much unless they were in the court. We addressed both problems by creating family heads whose opinions were directly applied to their family’s opinion – if the head had a +100 opinion of you, then his or her family’s opinion would be modified by +100. Now, if a player wanted to change relations with a family, all game systems that involved a character’s opinion could now apply; for example, the player could improve relations with a family by conducting an Influence mission with the family’s head. Conversely, the event system could give an option that might offend the family’s head which would then reduce the family’s opinion.

Another important vector for family opinion would be religion. Characters adopt religions local to their family’s cities, and once enough family members follow the same one, a family officially adopts that religion. After that happens, the religion’s opinion is applied directly to the family’s opinion, so now all missions and events affecting a religion could also potentially affect a family. I added religion to Civ 4 primarily to create a reason why one rival nation would like you and another one wouldn’t. Religion serves a similar purpose in Old World, except that it now applies to tribes and families as well. Religions also have heads that work similarly to the heads of families; the opinion of the head would be applied directly to the opinion of the religion, which would then be applied directly to the opinion of nations, tribes, and families that follow that religion. Thus, religion heads are very important characters that touch multiple levels of the world, a new way that a character’s opinion could matter.

I began to use a river network as a metaphor to describe how opinion flowed throughout the game. More specifically, opinion only ever flows in one direction, a fact I discovered when the game crashed after a character’s opinion boosted their religion’s opinion which then boosted their family’s opinion which then affected the original character and continued in an infinite loop. Thus, character opinion flows into nations, tribes, families, and religions, and religion opinion flows into nations, tribes, and families, but the opinions never flow in the opposite direction. Understanding this flow is key to learning who to favor and who to ignore, which is important for keeping families happy. Further, putting characters at the origin of the river keeps the opinion system inherently fluid and dynamic as fortune’s wheel has its way with the people of Old World.

Old World Designer Notes #7: Characters

The following is an excerpt from the Designer Notes for Old World. The game, a historical 4X set in classical antiquity, released on July 1, 2021, and is available for purchase here.

Veterans of Civ communities will recognize the acronym ICS (Infinite City Sleaze) as it has haunted the series since the beginning. However, there is another acronym that is less recognized but just as big a problem and, frankly, a lot harder to solve – ECS, which stands for Eternal China Syndrome. The term refers to the tendency of nations that have gotten over the hump of early expansion to maintain a level of internal stability that is both ahistorical and, more importantly, not much fun. (Of course, students of Chinese history will know that the term is an exaggeration of the country’s actual internal stability.) Most of the pressure applied to the player in Civ comes from external sources, meaning other nations, and the internal pressures (including unhappiness) are really just different flavors of taxes. Furthermore, although new abilities and powers are unlocked throughout the game (via laws or techs or Wonders), they are accretive, meaning that they are only given to the player, never taken away. Strategy games are built from players adapting to their current situation and making difficult decisions along the way, but in most 4X games, these decisions are front-loaded to the initial exploration and expansion phases. Once stability sets in, the path ahead for the player becomes very predictable, which is an important reason why 4X games become such slogs – the path to the victory (or defeat) gets more and more predictable the longer a game continues.

Characters were not introduced to Old World to alleviate ECS; they were added simply because more and more games (Crusader Kings being the obvious example) were adding characters in meaningful ways and, in doing so, appealing to larger and larger audiences. Turns out that people like playing games that are about people, and a game that lasts 6,000 years is more about gods than humans. The benefits of adding characters to Old World could be spun out into multiple new articles, but to some extent, the lessons learned are not particularly interesting as the benefits were largely free, a simple result of human empathy and vengeance, of our sympathy and our avarice. Adding flesh-and-blood humans to a game is somewhat akin to adding realistic physics; it adds instant depth, but the depth is going to be the same across all games that do a good job representing the human condition. I’ll do my best to avoid getting carried away here and not end up quoting Anna Karenina and simply move on to how adding real characters improves the core 4X gameplay.

Simply put, characters add a dynamism to Old World that prevents it from reaching ECS, the usual fate of most 4X games. The most obvious way characters disrupt the game’s stability is via diplomacy. Simply having foreign leaders actually change – from death or abdication or even deposition – over the course of the game makes a huge difference. Perhaps you have a great relationship with Phillip of Greece but not so much with his heir, Alexander, because you offended him at a dinner years before? The latter’s eventual ascension (unless, say, some unfortunate accident might come to pass) will mean that your diplomatic status with Greece could go from good to bad. The amazing thing about this outcome is that it flows completely naturally from having real characters who age and die; players aren’t shocked when relations change and, indeed, expect them to change.

It is hard to articulate how significant a departure this is from a tension that has always bedeviled Civ games – that players expect diplomacy to be predictable, but predictable diplomacy inevitably becomes boring. Players will frequently rant over “unpredictable” or “random” AI leaders who suddenly go from being a friend to an enemy. These shifts are necessary for games to not slowly calcify from their earliest diplomatic states, but there are few ways to make these changes thematically palatable when the leaders never change. Civ games have experimented with all sorts of opinion modifiers that give a reason why a leader might change their opinion of you, but the most natural reason is that there is now simply a new leader who has a new set of relationships, memories, and opinions.

However, the biggest gains for dynamism are not external (like diplomacy) but internal, changing how your own nation works. As mentioned previously, one problem with unlocking powers over the course of a 4X game is that they tend to be accretive, a nation slowly adds new and better abilities over the course of the game. Players don’t like losing their powers, and Civ has only dabbled with this, such as the Civ 4 civics system where a player might give up one power but only to unlock a better one. When powers are accretive, designers have to be careful not to make them too strong, or else they could dominate. Give the player a giant hammer too early, and the rest of the game is a nail.

Instead, what if powers were attached to leaders via their unique archetypes, and these powers disappear when the leader dies? Then, the powers can change how the game works significantly but not permanently – for example, Builder leaders can add new Urban tiles to cities, Orators can hire Tribal troops as Mercenaries with Legitimacy, Heroes can Launch Offensives to allow units to attack twice, and Tactician Leaders can Stun their targets as Generals. Each of these powers fundamentally changes how the game feels, but attaching them to the Leader’s archetype means that each power is mutually exclusive and will be active less than 10% of the time. (There are ten archetypes, and young leaders don’t always even have archetypes.) Further, because these powers are attached to characters, players don’t have complete control over when these powers are turned on and off. If they were attached to Laws, for example, players might abuse the ability to switch between them whenever desired. Instead, players have some, but not total, control over the archetype of their heirs and have to navigate the natural flow of their dynasty. They can still make long-term plans for when their current Builder leader is succeeded by his Hero daughter, but they can’t pick the same pattern, game after game.

Perhaps the best thing about all of these new dynamic elements that flow from characters is that they are simply a natural extension of human nature and regular lifespans, of which all players bring an understanding to the game. For example, if a game spanning 6,000 years tried to implement our archetype system, it would need to tie itself into knots justifying why these powers are constantly changing, why the player doesn’t always have control of them, and why they are all available and viable at both the beginning and the end of the game. A game’s theme has its own gravity which puts limits on where the design can reach, and games about people provide natural affordances for an environment that is constantly changing, always a good thing for a strategy game.