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?

Monday, June 4, 2012

Borders and Territory in Civilization-style Games

This post is the beginning in a series about borders and territory in Civilization-style games.  It is meant to familiarize the reader with the various borders-systems of the Civilization series and sum up how borders are generally integrated into the modern turn-based strategy game.

  • Civilization II (CIV2, 1996)
  • Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri (SMAC, 1999)
  • Civilization III (CIV3, 2001)
  • Civilization IV (CIV4, 2005)
  • Civilization V (CIV5, 2010)

Civilization II


There was no borders system for Civilization II.  The only restriction on city placement were the minimum-distance constraint, and the only way to control AI movement through your land was via Zones of Control from your own units.  Cities could work any tile not being worked by any other city.

Alpha Centauri


Borders were first introduced to turn-based civilization-style games in Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri (SMAC).  Before that time, clear map-level delineations between players did not exist.  In SMAC, borders extended from a faction's bases to a certain, large, radius when the base was first founded.  When borders conflicted, the game used a "who's base is closer" style of adjudication to decide which faction controlled the territory.

Borders could be violated without going to war.  If you discovered another faction's units within your borders, you could demand that they leave, though you faced the risk of them declaring war over the request.  The AI was programmed to not ask for you to leave its borders unless it could see an offending unit.  Importantly, bases could not work tiles not within your borders, and I recall that bases could not be founded in other faction's territory as well.  However, I'm not completely certain about that.

Civilization III


Civilization III introduced the concept of culture related to borders.  Newly founded cities only expanded your borders 1 tile from the city square, and as differing culture levels were reached, the border from the city expanded to the "fat cross" familiar to fans of Civilization 4.  Border conflicts were adjudicated by checking the total value applied to each tile every turn, which each city in range applying its culture value to the tile each turn.  A side effect of this system was that borders were not particularly "sticky" and could change quickly based on founding new cities.

Borders could still be violated without war.  Right of passage agreements would let players use each other's roads and railways, though it also lead to the concept of "RoP Rape" where a player could sign an RoP with an AI, move their units into position around each AI city, and then declare war.  Their units would then be in position to gut the AI empire before any effective response could be mobilized.

The idea of culture-flipping was also introduced.  A city could convert from one civilization to another if it was sufficiently pressured by opposing culture.

Finally, unlike Alpha Centauri, a player could see everything that happened within his borders.

Civilization IV


Civilization IV iterated on the CIV3 design, adding more culture buildings and filling some of the holes.  A player could only enter another player's borders in a state of war or with an open-borders agreement.  Additionally, when war was declared, units were automatically removed to prevent players sneak-attacking the AI.  Tiles and cities also accumulated culture points over the course of the game.  As a consequence, borders became more "sticky" and harder to change as the game progressed.

Culture flips remained, as did the big-fat-cross (BFG).  Below, the city of Aachen has expanded to its 2nd ring borders.  Great Artists were also introduced, and could be consumed to add a large amount of culture in a city to dramatically expand borders.  Early in the game, a properly used GA could overwhelm the established borders of another player.  However, later in the game, due to the accumulation of culture on tiles, the Great Artist bomb became less effective.

2nd ring borders in CIV4

Civilization V


The culture/borders/territory design was mostly rewritten for Civilization 5.  Cities would still gain culture and expand borders based on that culture but tiles would be gained individually.  Tiles could also be gained by using gold to "rush buy" the tile.  However, tiles gained through culture would be gained based on an algorithm outside of the player's control.  My own experience with the tile-picker is that it works reasonably well, but there are certainly instances where I'd prefer a different tile from the one it picked.
City view in Civ5 with predicted tile expansion.  The picker prioritizes luxury resources, but here is torn between choosing the dye or the incense tile.
In CIV5, a player cannot flip tiles from another player without either conquering the offending city or using a Great Artist to culture bomb the tile.  Tiles also did not accumulate culture.  Instead they are assigned to a particular city (either the city whose culture claimed it, or the city working the tile).  Tiles and borders then shift with possession of the city.  This was a dramatic departure from CIV4, where newly conquered territory often needed an influx of culture just to establish a workable border, but was presaged in a CIV III WW2 scenario.  In that scenario, all culture added to a city was given to the current owner.
The same city after the 1st border expansion.

Today


Borders come from culture, generated in cities.  We expect borders to be respected by the AI and other players.  We expect borders to be "sticky": once they're established only dramatic changes can move them.  Effectively, we expect the behavior of borders to mimic those of a real life, sovereign nation state.

Most interesting to me, however, are that borders do not reflect the map terrain. Borders reflect the position of cities and their culture.  Cultural borders do not care whether or not a tile is a plains, mountain, or ocean.  For games which as their basis ask players to plan and grow around the terrain of the map, this seems a strange omission.

In the next post, I'll talk about the differences in game-play between dynamic and static borders.  I plan to take examples from the Civilization series as a whole and a number of Paradox and Creative Assembly titles.