August 27th, 2007 Soren Johnson
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?