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?

J.K. Rowling: Good Author, Bad Game Designer

Just finished Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, and I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed it, especially after the drudgery of books five and six. Presumably, Rowling had book seven’s pay-offs in mind from the very beginning, which might explain it’s return to form. At any rate, Harry Potter did pretty well for itself; Rowling is obviously a gifted story-teller. What she is not, however, is a good game designer. I have yet to see anyone else take her to task for this, so it might as well be me.

Quidditch is a bad game design. For the uninitiated, it’s essentially magical soccer, where witches and wizards fly around the field, trying to throw the ball (the “Quaffle”) through one of the hoops to score 10 points. So far, so good.

The game extends beyond soccer because of the Golden Snitch, which is a small golden ball, capable of flying around the field by itself. Each side has one player (known as the “Seeker”) whose only purpose is to catch the Snitch, which is worth 150 points. A little unbalanced, perhaps, but not fatal.

The problem is that the game ends only when the Snitch is caught. I am sure most game designers would see the problem here. What should the Seeker do if his or her team is behind by more than 150 points? Obviously, the player should not catch the Snitch as that would guarantee a loss for his or her team – the 150 points would not make up for the difference in score. The Seeker is in a compromised situation.

Games should not penalize players for doing their job well. It’s not really even a game rule, it’s just common sense. Of course, if you write the stories, you can make sure the fictional games never result in such a sticky position. Quidditch as a real game, though, would be a bit of a mess.

I’ve never played any of EA’s Harry Potter games, but I am curious to know how they addressed this problem. You could leave the rules as is, I suppose, but I wouldn’t want to design a game in which, when the player finally succeeds (by catching the Snitch), the words “You Lose!” suddenly appear.

And the Answer is…

The answer to the question from my last postwhy was the Unit Workshop from SMAC not seen as a success within Firaxis? – doesn’t actually have anything to do with the game mechanics themselves. The problem is the graphics.

SMAC2.JPG

The Unit Workshop allowed the player to create new unit types. Of course, in order to make such a system work, you need certain limitations. In this case, the player creates a new unit by choosing parts from a list of Chassis, Weapons, Shields, and Reactors. The unit’s graphics were then dynamically generated based on the choices made. The problem is that all the units ended up looking very similar, even if they had quite different game values. The game had to cover all possible combinations, which led to generic-looking units because the graphics came from generalized algorithms instead of the imagination of the artists.

SMAC1.JPG

For Civ 4, we didn’t want to have one basic warrior model that could carry either a club or axe or spear or sword. Instead, we wanted to emphasize the difference between the units; a spearman would look a lot more shiny and metallic than the rougher, more barbaric axeman, for example. Being able to distinguish units is a key graphical issue (perhaps the key graphical issue) for strategy games, and the Unit Workshop tied the hands of the artists trying to make the game’s sci-fi units look distinct.

The Unit Workshop was undoubtedly a cool feature (in fact, it has certain parallel with Spore). However, game design is a series of trade-offs, and it’s not clear if the plus of creating your own units outweighed the minus of the units all looking the same.

Whither Workshop?

In the comments section of my last post, José asked a question about why we didn’t incorporated either the commodity-based economy from Colonization or the Unit Workshop from Alpha Centauri into the core Civ franchise. It’s a very valid question as a number of ideas from these spin-offs have made their way back into the original series; for example, the civics system in Civ 4 is quite obviously an adaption of Social Engineering from SMAC. In the case of Colonization, its commodity system is simply too complex to match the simplicity of the other sub-systems in Civ. A detailed commodity system fits Colonization because that game streamlined many other aspects of the standard Civ model, such as technology or even military. As for the Unit Workshop – well, that is a very interesting question indeed. To many fans, this system was one of the highlights of SMAC, a unique feature that put Alpha Centauri in a class by itself for turn-based strategy games. However, it may surprise people to know that – by and large – the Unit Workshop was not seen as a success inside of Firaxis. I’m curious if anyone can guess what was the fatal flaw of this feature?

8 Things Not To Do… (Part I)

Inspired by Troy S. Goodfellow’s list of the Eight Greatest Features he values in strategy games, I started thinking about the opposite question: what are the greatest mistakes that I hate to see done over and over again in game design? In no particular order, here are my first four:

1. Hard-core game conventions
One of the most common pitfalls for a game designer is to fear that the game is not hard enough. This fear often leads to hard-core game conventions, like restrictive save systems and unlockable content, that only put roadblocks in the way of the mainstream gamer who is just looking to have a good time. If you feel your game needs the tension of a restrictive save system, go ahead and implement it… but only as a feature of a higher difficulty level. Difficulty levels are the key to making a game accessible to both the casual and the hard-core gamer; we could never seem to add enough difficulty levels to Civ to keep our wide variety of fans happy. Trauma Center (DS) is a good example of a great game that was ruined by having no difficulty levels whatsoever. The surgery game is a brilliant use of the DS touch-screen, but the linear challenges get so hard by the fourth or fifth level that most people get hopelessly stuck after only a couple hours. Considering that the levels were timed, it wouldn’t have taken them more than a week to implement a difficulty system that simply extended the time limits at the easier settings. A Trauma Center with difficulty levels would have enjoyed similar success to Elite Beat Agents – another great touch-screen game but one not afraid to let the player start at an easy difficulty level.

2. Repetitive interface tasks
I am currently enjoying the old-school dungeon crawler Etrian Odyssey quite a bit on my DS, enough so that I can’t help day-dreaming about how much fun it would be to remake Bard’s Tale or Legacy of the Ancients for the DS. Unfortunately, the game’s interface does a terrible job of enabling the player to skip over needlessly repetitive tasks. Want to sell your loot? You have to click on every single Hare Tail in your inventory not once, but twice for confirmation! After a long excursion, this can often lead to around 100 presses of the A button when you get back to town. A simple “sell all of item X” would be an invaluable time-saver. Likewise, as a typical party-based RPG, there comes a time when your group no longer has to fear the lower-level creatures. However, for every random encounters, you still have to select ‘Attack’ and target a creature for all five of your characters even though there is literally ZERO danger to your party. (That’s ten presses of the A button for those of you keeping score at home.) A “party auto-attack” command for these battles would have saved me literally hours of play time. Always remember, your player’s time is valuable.
Fun Factor = Interesting Decisions / Actual Time Played.

(UPDATE: Yeah, so I blew this one. There is a “sell all” option in Etrian Odyssey, and it’s even shown on the interface. The point is still valid, but I targeted the wrong game.)

3. Limited play variety
No matter how good your game is, it is going to get stale after awhile. It’s a real shame when a great game doesn’t take the few extra steps necessary so that the player can mess around with the settings to create alternative play experiences. Company of Heroes is an incredible tactical RTS, a watershed moment for the genre – but there is no way to have an Axis vs. Axis battle or even a game with more than two sides. This design choice may fit the fiction of WWII, but it significantly reduced the game’s play variety. A good example of an RTS that got this right is the Age of Empires series. Not only could you mix-and-match any combination of civilizations and players and teams, but you could also design your own map scripts. I remember one interesting Age of Kings map designed by Mike Breitkreutz, a Firaxis programmer, that had almost no wood and tons of stone and gold, turning the game’s economy upside-down. You could even have multiple players controlling the same single civilization (one player could control the military, the other the economy, for example). Thus, I’ve played 2-vs-3 games of AoK where the sides with 2 civs was actually controlled by 4 players (and guess which side won?!?) These simple variations probably doubled the life-span of AoK amongst my group of friends.

4. Too much stuff
The temptation to pile extra units and buildings and whatnot onto to an already complete design is strong. Indeed, I have seen many people describe games as simply a collection of stuff (“18 Weapons! 68 Monsters! 29 Levels!”) Needless to say, this is a wrong-headed approach. A game design is a collection of interesting decisions, as Sid would say, and the “stuff” in the game is there not to fill space but to let you execute decisions. Games can provide too few options for the player but – more commonly – games provide too many. How many is just right? That’s simple enough to answer, it’s 12! (it’s definitely not 42…) OK, obviously there is no magic number, but 12 is a good figure to keep in mind. It’s an excellent rule-of-thumb for how many different options a player can keep in his or her mind before everything turns to mush. It’s the number Blizzard uses to make sure their RTS’s don’t get too complex. StarCraft averaged 12 units per side. So did WarCraft 3 (not counting heroes). And you can bet your bottom dollar that StarCraft 2 is going to be in that neighborhood as well. In fact, Blizzard has already announced that, for the sequel, they will be removing some of the old units to make room for the new ones.

Next time: pirates, modders, and black boxes…

Beyond the Sword

So, the second expansion for Civ4 came out last week. It has been received very well; in fact, it’s the top-rated “recent” PC game, according to Metacritic. I’d like to heartily congratulate my old mates at Firaxis for a job well done – I am especially looking forward to trying out Jon’s and Alex’s new game concepts as well as seeing the job Sirian did with adding events to the core game. The variety of mods and scenarios included in the expansion (ranging from space to fantasy to WW2 to world history) is truly impressive and demonstrates that our efforts making Civ4 so moddable have paid off. I am especially proud of the mods which were contributed from the fan community; I am always surprised how much enjoyment I get watching people become game designers within the Civ universe.

I have to admit, it’s a little odd being on the outside looking in on a major Civilization release. It’s a game that has gone through many different shepherds over the years and will probably continue to do so as long as people want to rule the world. Well, it was a fun ride while it lasted. Good luck to the new generation!