Monday, February 15, 2016

Practicing Game Descriptions

I want to practice summarizing games into a tight description. I keep a steam category of "games I am currently playing", so let's see what the first pass looks like.

  1. Big Pharma is a game where the player designs and manages their own pharmaceutical manufacturing company, they must discover new ingredients, research new machines, and then design and build the production lines to produce drugs to meet scenario goals.  Scenarios are varied and include maximum cashflow, advanced drugs, high quality drugs, and getting out of crippling debt.
  2. Child of Light is a synthesis of Metroid style exploration and unlocks and JRPG combat as the player commands a princess on a hero's journey through a fantasy dreamland.
  3. Conflicks - Revolutionary Space Battles places the player in command of alternate history space-fleets of 17th and 18th century European powers as they battle for dominance.  The player builds their forces, maneuver for advantageous position, and seek to destroy the enemy.  There are lots of chickens, and they are both a resource and a faction.
  4. Galactic Civilizations III is a 4x space game.  Players explore the galaxy, design their own ships, participate in a frantic landgrab for planets and resources, and then develop those planets and their empire to win the game through conquest, diplomacy, influence, or technology.
  5. Renowned Explorers: International Society has the player lead a team of 3 explorers across various adventures in a bid to become the most famous explorers after a set number of expeditions.  Encounters are resolved through managing the mood of the encounter with attack, deception, or diplomacy.
  6. Sunless Sea is a game about exploring the vast Unterzee of the Fallen London universe with humor and a lovecraftian twist on Victorian England.  You try to survive as you carry cargo, explore the sea, and find new destinations and stories.  There are monsters which will most likely eat you.
  7. TIS-100 is a programming game where you try to manipulate a many-core simple processor array joined by single-word FIFOs to complete challenges and discover what happened to the machine's previous owner.
  8. Total War: Attila has the player command battles, and manage their towns and territories as they seek to become the predominant power in the post-roman world.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Accepting Setbacks in Games

In strategy games such as Civilization, where the player can save and load at approximately any time, why should the player ever accept even the most minor of setbacks?  In a fundamentally single-player experience, is it really even a problem? The player has bought the game, why shouldn't they be able to enjoy it the way they want to?  If they get the most enjoyment from a game where they are always triumphant, isn't that enough?

Sometimes yes, entertainment is enough, but we need to keep in mind the experience we've  helped create.  When the player constantly saves and reloads, they've changed the fundamental character of the game.  Instead of reacting to and influencing a dynamic world, they're playing through a series of fixed challenges with checkpoints.   These kinds of games are common in other genres such as single player first person shooters and can be quite a bit of fun, but it means that the player has effectively genre shifted the game to something we haven't prepared for in our design.

How then, should we adapt? We could restrict how our players play the game, either by changing how the  save/load system works, or some other tweak.  Or we could try to actively encourage the player to roll with the setbacks and try to overcome the new situation.  Two recent games have done a good job with the latter: Crusader Kings II from Paradox, and XCOM: Enemy Unknown from Firaxis.

In Crusader Kings II, there are always more plans to make, and wars of annihilation are rare compared with Civilization.  So the failure of one plan, or the loss of one war, is not the catastrophe that they are in Civilization.  Additionally, when a character dies unexpectedly  the player is immediately given control of the heir, who is full of untapped potential, encouraging the player to keep playing the current game.  Combined, these features make CK II a game where players can feel quite comfortable playing the ball as it lies.

XCOM accomplishes a similar effect by making soldiers expendable and by doling out goodies after every mission.  Sure you could reload and replay the mission, but perhaps you'll get a different amount of rewards, or maybe one of the survivors won't level-up this time.  Additionally, beyond the expendability of the soldiers themselves, the game will periodically reward you with the opportunity to gain experienced soldiers to help out a campaign which has lost one too many veterans.  The end result, is that even total party kills are recoverable on the normal and easy difficulties, so players are encouraged to keep playing through adversity.  Additionally, XCOM has an iron man mode where saving is restricted and achievements tied to that mode for bragging rights.  XCOM tells you explicitly how you're meant to play it, and then presents a structure where it's entirely feasible to do so.

Using the examples of CK II and XCOM, we can see that it is quite possible to encourage players to not genre shift the game out of its design space but it is something we need to actively pursue.  We need to offer players gameplay reasons to play on through adversity, rather than stacking all the incentives in favor of save/reload (lose nothing, gain everything).

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

EitB Dev Journal - Nox Noctis Crash Fix

I finally found some time to take a look at the Nox Noctis crash, and I think I've fixed it.  You should be able to replace your CVGameCore.dll in your /Mods/Erebus in the Balance/Assets folder with the one linked in this post below.

New CVGameCore.dll

The cause and fix itself are somewhat embarrassing   I was treating the unit array of a player as always having valid units in it.  This is not true, and so building/capture Noctis would result in the game trying to pull the attributes of a unit that did not exist, causing a crash.  The fix then, was to check and skip each Null section of the array.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Endless Space - Prelude to a Free Weekend

Endless Space is a 4X space game from Amplitude Studio.  They are actively developing the game post-release using a system they call GAMES2GETHER, a very transparent approach to game development.

I picked the game up during the Steam Thanksgiving sale and have played about 12 hours so far.  It came recommended from a friend who also likes turn-based strategy games.  The game uses a minimal UI that works fairly well.  The overall feel of the game itself is a sense of detachment, as you survey the entire galaxy from a far away view.  The map is a familiar star-graph with jump lanes and wormholes connecting stars together and forming choke-points during the early and mid-games.  Later on, players can develop new ship drives that bypass node lines, opening up the map just as the ships get big and dangerous.

Amplitude has done a rather interesting thing with ship movement: fleets can interdict a system, forcing other fleets to attack them if they wish to leave the system.  This means you can use your fleets to trap enemy fleets or control access to particular parts of the map.  When combined with Amplitude's decision to start players in a "cold war" state, the early game colony rush contains the real possibility of evolving into a shooting war.  Battles look spectacular and uses a 5-phase system to keep battles short and micromanagement free.

Fleets can interdict systems, blocking enemy movement.
The game can feel a bit flat from time to time, but I think that it's definitely worth keeping your eye on as development continues.  As an added bonus, Endless Space is free to play this weekend.  So if you have a Steam account, go and check it out!
One of my early games.

Monday, November 26, 2012

What I've been Playing

I've been playing quite a bit of XCOM lately.  I played the original as a child and so remember nothing from it except the sheer terror that is the Chryssalid and so I would qualify myself as "new" to the series.  The pacing is very effective, as I find myself ping-ponging back and forth between the strategy and tactical layers without missing a beat.  The game also does a good job of creating a sense of reverse time compression - let me explain.

When I play games like Civilization, I lose time.  I look up at the clock after a play session and more time has passed than I expected.  When I play XCOM, I gain time.  The clock shows that less time has passed than expected.  I suspect this is a result of the tension that XCOM creates during play.

XCOM is my current game that I recommend to my gamer friends.  It is an tight, focused experience that creates a deeply personal feeling of victory and defeat no matter which difficulty level you play on.

Due to the steam sale and recommendations from friends, I also picked up both Endless Space and Sword of the Stars II, two space-based 4x games.  I've not really had the time to dive into them in a serious manner, but have managed to clock the first hour or so in each title.  My first impression of Endless Space is one similar to a civilization game: a new player feels pretty comfortable diving in and just doing stuff.  Sword of the Stars II, however, feels much more like a traditional Paradox game: dense, meaty, and requiring a lot of reading and flailing about.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Cities XL and the Danger of Unlocks

I read Jon Shafer's piece on unlocks, mechanics, and modifiers.  Go read it.  He makes several very good points, but I'd like to focus on unlocks, and how dangerous they can be to a player's enjoyment of a game if done wrong.

I've recently been playing a city building game called Cities XL from Focus Home Interactive.  I've been enjoying it quite a bit, it has a fun traffic model and gives good tools for analyzing and fixing traffic flow in your city.  I liked being able to create and then manage my own optimization problem.  I'm also told the it is quite beautiful, but my laptop apparently doesn't do it justice.

The game, when played with the standard options, makes heavy use of unlocks.  As the city hits new population thresholds, new buildings and road-styles are unlocked, giving the player new opportunities to rebuild and reorganize their city as it grows and thrives.  For the most part, these unlocks are awesome and fun as you add more and more complexity to your city; and early on, they come quickly.  The last transport option unlocked is highways (500k population).  They have double the capacity of your largest road.  Since the previous transport unlock was at 100k population, the player is desperately looking forward to the highway unlock. However, they are unusable due to how they interface with the already existing road network.

The details of how and why they don't work are interesting, but not very important.  What is critical though, is that it crushed my morale in the game.  Here was something I had been looking forward to for hours, and it was effectively useless to me.  At first I didn't quite believe it.  I spent about an hour trying to get highways properly integrated into my city.  After that, I popped online to check out the forums and see what people were saying.  Most of them were along the flavor of: "Yeah, highways are terrible, use a mod".

I've put Cities XL down for now.  Maybe I'll come back to it later.  I got a good deal of enjoyment out of the game, but I can't help but feel that if the highway system had been something worthy of all the anticipation, I would have doubled my total playtime.  So yes, unlocks are fun when done correctly, but if you do them wrong you're going to bring the Chick Parabola crashing down upon your player's head.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Static and Dynamic Maps and Borders

Maps and borders are strange things.  We are acquainted with them relatively early in life and they serve as a useful way for us to adopt a more abstract view of the world around us.  In strategy and war games, the vast majority of our time is spent staring at a map.  How the map is designed then, becomes a crucial component of the player's experience, as it literally determines how we play, and think about, the game.  I think to describe a strategy game's map design we should answer two (slightly unrelated) questions:

  1. How are borders and territories drawn?
  2. How do players move their forces around?