Warp is a puzzle–based stealth action game where you play as Zero, a little orange alien with a big score to settle!

I copied that off the game's website.

The important part is in the first five words. Warp is puzzle-based. That's how the game is billed, that's what I expected.

And let's get this out of the way: Warp is a good game. The puzzles are fun, the game is pretty, the plot is predictable but in the good we're-all-familiar-with-this-myth-so-let's-get-the-cliches-out-of-the-way-and-have-some-puzzle-fun manner. I like myths. Myths are good. Myths attached to a puzzle game are even better.

Zero, the playable character, has a host of special abilities. He can warp through solid walls and obstructions, he can warp inside objects and explode them from the inside, he can swap places with objects and he can launch objects at high speed. Note that "objects" includes "people". In most puzzle games, "people" are major puzzle pieces. In Warp, the only real difference between a turret and a person is that the person is easier to lure into important locations and doesn't shoot you as quickly.

It's all a recipe for a great puzzle game, and it's honestly somewhat tragic that it falls short.

The thing about good puzzle games is that, by their very nature, you'll have trouble with them. Some puzzle games are designed so that it's impossible to get stuck. Some are designed so that restarting is easy and fast. Warp is a bit of a curious beast in that it's also a stealth action game. Your opponents have guns, they are quick with their triggers, and you will die in a single shot. So: You die. You hit the "restart" button.

You sit there staring at a loading screen for ten seconds.

Which doesn't sound like a lot, but Warp is a very deadly game. The wrong approach can, and will, lead to death in seconds. Even when you're not being actively shot at, the world is littered with lasers and explosives and similar instant death traps. The second level starts with a puzzle that will kill you so quickly that failure results in spending more time loading than playing. And even when your plan is perfect and the area is harmless, Warp's sensitive controls will lead to you waltzing into lasers and warping yourself straight into death far more often than you'd expect.

Each time, accompanied by a ten second loading screen.

It is hard to describe how annoying that is, and it's just a herald of what lies in store.

Warp is filled with minor issues. Nothing that, in itself, would cripple the game. Things that I'd normally be remarking about in passing, as a minor blemish on an otherwise good game. But they just came so quickly and so relentlessly that it seemed every time I forgot about one, I'd run into another.

Example: The levels are filled, not just with armed guards, but with unarmed scientists. The scientists are terrified of you. Perpetually. Doesn't matter if you've carefully avoid killing scientists. Every time you warp into a room: screaming scientists. You can stand in the room for a minute and they just keep running around panicking, you leave the room, they recover and go back to work, teleport back in and it's Screamtown USA all over again.

This could have been improved in several ways. Iji does it brilliantly – avoiding slaughter in Iji eventually leads to the "enemies" allying with you, followed by an entire different branch of the game with a different ending. Extra endings and game branches take time and money, of course. Here's an easier idea: make the damn scientists quieter. As it is, every time you jump into a room you're greeted with an atmosphere-obliterating chorus of screeches. Or make them stop paying attention to you after a while! Maybe that's a reward for not killing them: they stop setting off alarms!

Another example: I mentioned Warp's controls. Most of my frustration revolved around Zero's Illusion ability, which allow him to project a duplicate of himself to trick enemies. The problem is that any damage done to the illusion, or any missteps into areas where the illusion is not allowed to go, will dissipate the illusion . . . causing Zero to instantly start moving in whatever direction the illusion was moving. If you use the illusion in a place where it's not allowed – even if a valid spawn point is literal inches away – the illusion will spawn directly in front of Zero, instantly disperse, and return control to Zero when you're least expecting it.

So if, for example, you decide to create an illusion and move it forward, and at that very instant a laser beam fires directly ahead of you, your illusion will walk into it, disperse, and before you have time to react, Zero will troop happily into it and die.

Cue ten-second load screen.

Not that this happened to me dozens of times over during the end boss fight or anything.

I can live with issues like this if the game is a low-budget affair, and doubly so if they're easy to recover from. Hotline Miami, an even faster-paced game released lately, is buggy as hell and had many fascinating problems and glitches as I fought my way through the levels. But in Hotline Miami, restarting the level is instant. And Hotline Miami's art is relatively simple, and its budget, I suspect, was quite minimal. For an indie game, Warp is a high-budget game, built on the Unreal engine, with detailed 3d models, good texturing, copious voice acting and cutscenes, and a boss that randomly and mysteriously fails to take damage from being attacked. Given the money spent on the rest of the game, the controls, loading times, and gameplay bugs are just unacceptable.

In the end, I kept feeling like the actual game had taken second tier to the rest of Warp. Compared to the amount of polish the art and atmosphere received, the gameplay was rough and spiky.

Warp is a good game. But with a little more work on the interface and a little more work on the game behavior, it could have been a lot better . . . even if that meant sacrificing a bunch of polygons.

The Complexity Budget: Moving the Focus

2012, February 29th 11:54 PM

We've spent time talking about Anno 2070's subtle shifts in complexity. We've spent time talking about Gyromancer, SquareLogic, and FF13's attempt to unearth new game mechanics by removing complexity. But we haven't talked about adding complexity, and we haven't talked about explicitly moving complexity.

So let's talk about that.

Starcraft 2 and Supreme Commander

You could just as easily compare Starcraft 1 and Total Annihilation, but I'm sticking with these because it'll be easier to find screenshots. (And no, we're not going to talk about Supreme Commander 2. That game didn't exist.)

Starcraft 2 and Supreme Commander, on first glance, occupy the same genre. They're both real-time strategy games, where the player is given control over a base filled with resource gatherers and production structures, has to construct an army, and is told to go blow up the bad guys.

It's the same genre, but the two games differ drastically after that.

A race in Starcraft 2 consists of 13 to 15 units and 15 to 18 buildings. Most buildings have orders they can be given, either to produce units or to produce upgrades for units. The units themselves almost all have a gimmick – sometimes a passive gimmick like the Observer's cloaking field and cloak detection, sometimes an active gimmick like the Marine's stimpack. Combat in Starcraft 2 is mathematically simple, without any worries about ballistics or dodging. A fired shot will always hit and always do a predictable amount of damage, albeit with a little travel time. However, the complexity of the units make combat fast-paced and difficult to perfect.

Supreme Commander takes a dramatically different approach, with almost fifty units and fifty buildings per faction. Production buildings build units just like Starcraft's, but control over your utility buildings is limited to a simple on/off switch. The vast majority of units have no gimmick, either passive or active, and while there are technically "fifty units" the majority of them are simple upgrades on previous units – like the "Conservator T1 Interceptor" vs the "Swift Wind T2 Combat Fighter" vs the "Corona T3 Air Superiority Fighter". In Supreme Commander, there's no reason to build the older models of aircraft – you'd always want to build the new, higher-tech version.

First, there's a moving of complexity. In Starcraft, you upgrade units by researching upgrades at your various structures. In Supreme Commander, you upgrade units by building a new factory, then producing upgraded units. The result is that, while Supreme Commander has two classes of "thing" – buildings and units – Starcraft 2 has three classes of "thing", adding upgrades into the mix. Supreme Commander simplified the basic concepts available in the game by adding far more types of unit.

Ironically, despite having well over three times as many units as Starcraft 2, Supreme Commander's units are, overall, much simpler. Most of Supreme Commander's units do three things: they move, they shoot, and they die. In the meantime, Starcraft's units can do all sorts of things, from kamikaze explosions to directed area-of-effect attacks to mind control to teleportation.

Supreme Commander's base-building is significantly more complicated. Structures in Starcraft are largely passive, acting as large lumps of hit points that let you build things. Supreme Commander leans much more heavily on active buildings with weaponry, giving you an entire range of close-range and long-range defensive buildings, as well as a small number of ultra-long-range artillery buildings. To supplement this, Supreme Commander provides a range of defensive shield buildings that can protect nearby units and structures from incoming fire. Finally, Supreme Commander's energy-generation buildings also act as augmentations for nearby structures, doing anything from reducing resource consumption to increasing fire rate.

To compensate for this dramatic increase in complexity, Supreme Commander's bases are far easier to automate. While Starcraft's factories require manual intervention for every single unit, Supreme Commander's factories can be set to automatically construct units without the user being involved. This is a good thing because Supreme Commander armies are far far larger. Starcraft limits the player to an army of 200 "food", and the vast majority of units take one or more food – some reaching up to eight food per unit. Endgame armies frequently number around 50-75 actual units. Supreme Commander, by default, limits you to 500 units, but this is more of a computer performance limit than a game balance limit.

So, the Complexity Roundup so far:

Starcraft has more complicated units, more base management, and more complex upgrades to deal with.

Supreme Commander has more complicated base layout and far more units, but once your base is laid out, it mostly manages itself.

From what I can tell, the goal with Supreme Commander was this: Make the player spend effort only on things that are actively improving their position. Building a larger base is worth spending time on. Keeping your base running is not. Changing your production is worth spending time on. Mass-producing units one at a time, by hand, is not. Your base is meant to run itself while you're away. So what do you do during those times you're "away"?

The intention, I think, was to set the player up as . . . well, as a Supreme Commander. (They're not subtle.) You have hundreds of units and you order them all around constantly. The trailers showed the player doing pincer attacks, feints, all sorts of clever military maneuvers.

Unfortunately, this doesn't work out well in a modern real-time strategy game. In real warfare, many of these clever military maneuvers worked due to limited information, bad communication, and extremely slow units. It's easy to do a pincer maneuver when the enemy is nearly incapable of relaying orders from one side of their formation to the other, and it's easy to do a pincer maneuver when the enemy is unable to look into thick brush. It's a whole lot harder when the enemy has a circle of visibility around their units roughly equal to yours and when the enemy can retreat at the same speed as you can attack.

And "far more units" isn't really a source of complexity in itself. When your units do individual important things, it certainly can be – if you're familiar with the game, imagine trying to efficiently manage a 1000-food Starcraft 2 army – but in the world of Supreme Commander, more units simply means a larger blob of death that gets moved around the map as a sort of conceptual amorphous accumulation of power.

Supreme Commander tried to move a large amount of Starcraft's base management and micromanagement complexity into largescale strategic positioning . . . but it turns out that really doesn't work well in the RTS genre. The end effect is to take a complicated game and just make it simpler, and that's one of many reasons Supreme Commander was unsuccessful.

But with that in mind, I can talk about a more successful example.

World of Warcraft raids vs God of War boss fights

I'm not going to even pretend that one of these was inspired by the other. We all know that's not true. But they make for an excellent study on how you can get dramatically different gameplay by moving complexity around.

For the sake of this discussion, let's just ignore the whole multiplayer thing. Assume your World of Warcraft pals are simply AI bots, and the boss lives or dies based on your success at your role in the fight.

World of Warcraft characters are very complicated. Even standing in one place trying to maximize damage on a single target, you're generally juggling half a dozen abilities or more, each of which has to be used properly in order to do your job right. Many of your abilities interact with each other in complicated and nonobvious ways and have to be activated in the right patterns. If you start having to move, or deal with large groups of enemies, or target-switch often, it gets far more complicated.

Conversely, controlling Kratos, God of War's main character, is quite simple. Maximizing damage is a matter of mashing a single button repeatedly, and your alternative attacks vary in only a few simple ways – usually recovery time or area damage. Kratos has no complex interacting moves. The only interesting thing Kratos does in terms of combat techniques is his combo moves, triggered by pressing the buttons in certain patterns – but Kratos has only a small number of these combos, and they are both completely predictable and easy to trigger.

Kratos is, fundamentally, much simpler to control than a World of Warcraft character. Basic understanding of Kratos's abilities takes minutes at most, and expert control takes perhaps a few hours.

Simplifying his control scheme opens up a lot of space for complexity in other places. Namely, bosses.

Much has been said of the complexity of World of Warcraft bosses, and in a sense, this is accurate. The most difficult boss fights tend to take a month or two for the best groups to kill. But this isn't a particularly even comparison. Warcraft bosses are intended to be tough to kill, while God of War bosses are intended to be relatively easy to kill. Challenging, yes, but doable. We're going to compare Warcraft bosses that are roughly the same difficulty as God of War bosses.

When making this comparison, the Warcraft bosses start looking simplistic at best.

Complicated bosses might do something every fifteen or even ten seconds – simple bosses will often have thirty-second-long periods of time where you're simply standing there whaling on the boss. Some bosses, such as the semi-infamous Patchwerk, have literally no gimmicks. They stand there and beat on you, you stand there and beat on it, if you survive long enough to kill it within the time limit, you win. Meanwhile, the God of War bosses tend to require a response every five seconds or so, at most. There's simply no time to get complacent and no time to rest – the boss will be smacking you if you let it.

Modern Warcraft bosses will usually have two or three basic attack patterns – "run away when he does this", "don't stand in fire", "get ready to cast a lot of healing spells", but all of these are telegraphed with a clear indicator and several seconds of spare response time. The God of War bosses often give you one second's worth of notice, at best, and frequently require that you quickly and accurately recognize the boss's movement and respond in the correct manner out of several options.

World of Warcraft has chosen to put a large amount of the gameplay complexity into the character. Once you understand your character – and that can take a phenomenally long time – most of the bosses end up being relatively similar. God of War, conversely, has chosen to put a large amount of the gameplay complexity into the boss. Each encounter is dramatically different, but your character is relatively simple and easy to deal with.

Proper complexity budgeting isn't just about putting complexity in the spots you want complexity to be – it's also about taking complexity out of the spots you don't want. If Kratos had a complicated control scheme it would take away from the real goal of the game: beating the shit out of horrifying monsters the size of a house. But if World of Warcraft had a simple control scheme, then the process of creating new bosses would be far more complicated and expensive, possibly resulting in huge budget issues. You can't get away with strictly removing complexity because that results in a dull game, but likewise you have to stay below an upper threshold, or your game is impenetrable and unplayable.

I could probably go on with more examples for months, but this has gone on easily long enough by now. I'd like for you readers to analyze a few games based on complexity. Take a look at what a game explicitly avoided adding, or what a game added that was unnecessary. Compare two games in seemingly the same genre but with different behavior.

I've found this to be a surprisingly powerful tool for analyzing game design, and I've already modified some of my game plans by reconsidering where I'm putting complexity. If you find anything interesting using it, let me know!

The Complexity Budget: Anno 2070

2011, December 29th 2:05 PM

I've been spending a lot of time thinking about complexity.

I've also been spending a lot of time playing Anno 2070.

Let's start with Anno 2070.

The game industry is fickle and deadly. Franchises appear out of nowhere, make it big, and instantly fall on their own sword, only to be resurrected in a sort of grisly undead state years later when some publisher realizes they still own the rights. The surviving franchises are either mutated out of recognition within a few years or exploited beyond all sanity. The Anno franchise is an exception. Anno 1602 was released way back in 1998, and it's been followed by four major sequels, two spinoffs, and an expansion pack. Despite this 13-year history, the core game mechanics are unchanged since the very beginning, which makes it absolutely perfect for this discussion.

Unfortunately, I've only played the most recent two games. I'm sure I could say a lot of fascinating things about the entire series of five games, and maybe someday I will, but that's not today. So, instead of talking about the Anno series as a whole, I'm going to talk about the changes between Anno 1404 (known in the US as Dawn of Discovery) and Anno 2070.

Anno is a citybuilding game. There's combat in it, but very little – the core game mechanic is about building a really big city with a whole lot of people and industry. Now, in most games, you'd expect that a city would need a lot of workers in order to run factories and farms. Anno doesn't work that way. Production buildings work whether or not you have people, but they cost money to run. Houses, meanwhile, do only three important things. First, they unlock new technologies and new buildings, based on your population type and your population count. Second, they give you money in taxes, which is needed to keep your cashflow positive and your production functional. Third, they consume the output of those aforementioned production buildings. Playing Anno isn't about balancing Residential, Commercial, and Industrial zones, then watching people move in, it's about building a ton of houses and then trying to keep them fed when they start demanding eighty tons of pasta every minute. And you're the one in charge of the pasta.

(All goods in Anno are measured in tons. This makes perfect sense when talking about wood, coal, or oil, less sense when talking about pasta or glass, and very little sense when talking about diamonds, lobster, or marzipan. You get used to it.)

For a game that's all about production quantities and production chains, Anno 1404 provides very few tools to keep an overview on your industry. In fact, until midway through the game, the only way to count your buildings is to do it manually. To make matters worse, Anno 1404's tech trees can be complicated and interdependent, and figuring out the proper building quantities requires that the player either do a lot of math by hand or use tools.

For example: To run a a wine press at full capacity requires three vineyards, one barrel cooperage, 2/3 of a lumberjack hut, half an iron smelter, half an ore mine, and half a charcoal burner's hut. An Optician's Workshop at full capacity requires 3/4 of a quartz quarry, 3/4 of a copper smelter, 3/4 of a copper mine, and half a charcoal burner's hut. A Redsmith's Workshop requires 1.5 candlemaker's workshops, 2 apiaries, 1.5 hemp plantations, 3/4 of a copper smelter, 3/4 of a copper mine, and 2 charcoal burner's huts. Now: If you want four wine presses, five optician's workshops, and three redsmith's workshops, what buildings do you need?

The answer is "I have no bloody idea, let me alt-tab out to check my Excel spreadsheet".

Even worse than that, however, is the fact that the game doesn't tell you these ratios. I had to look them up. The early tutorial gives you some of the basic ratios – "you will need two hemp plantations for every weaver's hut" – but the complicated stuff has to be determined either by trial and error or by looking it up on a wiki.

Anno 2070's solution to this is . . . incomplete, but an improvement. First, the very first buildings you can construct in Anno 2070 give you access to an easy building-counting station. Apparently they decided that counting buildings manually was boring.

I'm going to pause here, because that last line is the crux of this entire entry. They decided that counting buildings manually was boring. Got a boring mechanic? Take it out! We don't want that here! Every time you get the player to stop doing something that's boring, the player will have more time and more intellect available for things that are interesting. Counting sucks -> get rid of counting.

But they didn't think that calculating building numbers was boring. Now, it's obvious I disagree with this assessment, but I strongly suspect this was an intentional choice of theirs. You can't spend 13 years developing a franchise based around an accidental game mechanic. They also don't seem to think that production numbers are something they need to show. It'd be easy enough for them to do so. As it is, a chunk of the Anno community spends time figuring out the actual production numbers, which the rest of the community embeds into utility programs and the like.

Counting isn't the only interface improvement in Anno 2070. I've mentioned "production buildings", but really there are two important and unique kinds of production buildings – factories and farms. Factories take up a fixed area of land. Farms include a farmhouse, which takes up a small area, and then some number of farm plots – frequently larger than the farmhouse, and always more numerous – which have to be near the farmhouse. Through sheer bulk, the farm plots end up dominating your industry in terms of size, and you spend a good deal of the game time trying to lay out farm plots efficiently.

In Anno 1404, this is somewhat difficult. Farmhouses have a circular zone that you can place plots within, and there's a bit of latitude in how far outside that zone the plots are allowed to go. However, if your farm plots go too far outside the farmhouse radius, they'll produce slightly less efficiently. Remember the mess up there about building production quantities? Imagine if a few of your hemp workshops were running at 90% efficiency. Yeah. You don't want that. To make it even more complicated, some of your farms need to be within range of a water-producing building, which has its own circular radius. To make it even more complicated, you get further bonuses by having overlapping water-producing buildings.

Anno 2070 simplifies things considerably. First, there's no longer such a thing as a water-producing building. Second, while the farm plots still have to be placed nearby, and while the latitude still exists, farm plots placed "close enough" count 100%. Always. You can still be clever and place plots slightly outside the circular range . . . and now that's totally okay! There's no downside! It's just a little extra flexibility you have with placement.

The important thing to realize about complexity is that it's not simply a matter of increasing or reducing complexity. We're not talking about making a decision between Cow Clicker and Paradox Interactive's insane wargame simulators. This is all a matter of moving complexity. I'm going to use the term "complexity budget" – you have only so much space for complexity (both in your game design, and in your poor player's brain) and you have to spend it wisely. Anno 2070 took some of the complexity out of farm placement, which meant they had complexity to spare, which meant they had complexity to spend. And spend it they did!

Anno 1404 has several farm variations. The most common farm is the one that has four 3×4 plots. Later, you find a farm with eight 2×3 plots, as well as the behemoth Cattle Farm that has five 4×4 plots. But that's as weird as it gets – with the exception of the eight 2×3 plot building, every farm has between three and five plots, sized between 3×3 and 4×4.

Anno 2070 goes absolutely insane with farm layouts. Early buildings have a mere two 3×4 plots. The Fruit Plantation has eight 3×3 plots. The Corn Farm requires nine 3×6 plots. 3×6? What the hell is 3×6? And nine of them? Meanwhile, the behemoth Dairy Farm has seven 5×5 plots, making it by far the largest and most irritating structure in the game.

This, right here, is what I mean by the complexity budget. Anno 1404 spent a bunch of complexity on the difficulty of placing farm plots correctly. Anno 2070 threw away that complexity and replaced it with the difficulty of aligning farm plots in efficient patterns. 2070's Dairy Farm would simply be a nightmare to deal with in the world of 1404. With 2070 logic, it's certainly challenging, but it's nowhere near as horrifying as it could be. Moving the complexity out of one area of the game allows you to move it into another area without actually making the game more difficult to deal with – and if you're clever, you've moved it into a more fun location.

2070 moves complexity around in a few other directions as well, though I'm going to go over these quickly. Compared to 1404's Patricians, 2070's Executives are easy to keep happy. The Patricians gain a whopping six new demands at the end of the game, while the Executives only acquire two. But while 1404 has two population types – one complicated type with four stages, one simpler type with two – 2070 has three population types, two with four stages and one with two. The end result is that you spend far less time clawing your way up through the final stage and far more time watching your population upgrade. If 2070's four-stage populations had the complexity of 1404's four-stage population it would just be intimidating.

Finally, 2070 does have a replacement for 1404's water mechanic, but it's a simpler island-wide mechanic. Instead of overlapping circular water radiuses, you can change the ecology of the entire island, anywhere from a polluted hellhole into a glorious green paradise. It's a heavier-weight mechanic – instead of being a little localized effect on certain farms that you can ignore if you don't care, it's something you can and probably will put a significant amount of effort into – but it also has big and, more importantly, predictable results. It's not quite as complicated and minmaxable as 1404's mechanic but it's a lot easier to understand and has simpler ramifications through your supply chain. Anno 2070's water mechanic is made a running theme of the story and set, with a large amount of documentation explaining exactly how it works, while 1404's water mechanic is so undocumented and unintuitive that it's considered by some people to be an exploit – the developers have never fixed it through several major patches and an entire expansion pack.

So. Summary: 2070 takes 1404 and makes incremental improvements to it. They moved complexity out of some mechanics (counting buildings, finicky farm plot placement, water, complex population end requirements) and were able to use that space to add new mechanics (complicated farms, ecology, third population type). The game doesn't feel any more complicated than it did before, but most people seem to feel it's more interesting. Without removing the old things, it may simply have felt overwhelming.

Right now, I think this entry has gone on long enough by far. But we're not done with this subject – oh no, we have quite a lot further to go. We'll be posting more later.

This is going to be a tough post to write.

See, most of my dissections take the form "look, this is an excellent game, it is a lot of fun, let's talk about what it did wrong". Some of them are "I'm not sure what this is, but it's worth talking about".

For the first time, I want to talk about a game I flat-out didn't like.

You're not supposed to do this as a game developer. You're especially not supposed to do this as an independent game developer while talking about an independent game, and I feel sort of bad about it. But we're doing it anyway because I have an important point to make.

Now, before we continue, a bit of a disclaimer. Game preferences are very subjective. The fact that I don't like the game does not, in any sense, mean that the game is bad. Also, I wouldn't bother writing about the game if I thought it was awful. I had a lot of hopes for it, and it almost works for me, it just shoots itself in the foot after about two levels.

So let's talk about Dwarfs!?. And, no, I'm not going to keep including the punctuation.

Dwarfs places you in command of a town hall and a squadron of dwarves. The dwarves are mostly autonomous, mining semi-randomly in every direction. As they mine, they produce gold, which goes straight into your coffers. You can command dwarves to mine in specific directions, aiming them at caches of rare minerals and gems, but that costs the very same money they'd be mining for you, so it's a bit of a tradeoff.

The problem with autonomous mining dwarves is that they may mine in directions you don't want. The game field includes several unidentified caverns, which may be empty or contain gold. Worse, they might contain water or lava. Water spreads in all directions, drowns dwarves, and will eventually destroy your town hall if you permit it. Your only hope is to stop the water with a temporary wall (costs money), surround the dangerous cavern with unbreakable walls (which can be placed only on intact areas of the cave, and cost money), and then use explosives to create bottomless pits at every choke point before your dwarves blindly mine through the temporary wall again and release the flood. The explosives, unsurprisingly, cost money.

Lava works the same way, except it doesn't spread as quickly and it slowly burns through temporary walls.

Monsters will happily kill off your dwarven workers. For a fee, you can recruit dwarven warriors at your town hall, then give them instructions to go fight the monsters. You can also build outposts which allow warrior recruiting, allow mining dwarf recruiting, allow warrior training, and have a big cannon on the roof so you can launch your warriors around the map rapidly.

I've just described the entire game.

No, seriously. That's it. The whole thing. You've got one command you can give your dwarves ("move here"), four ways to interact with the world ("solidify", "explosive", "temporary wall", "build outpost"), and five outpost commands ("recruit workers", "recruit warriors", "train warriors", "launch warriors", "retrieve warriors").

Now, I don't mind minimalistic games. But they need to either polish that minimalistic game mechanic to a mirror shine (Canabalt), ensure that all the "simple" game mechanics interact in complicated ways (Desktop Dungeons), or create varied and well-designed game levels for those simple mechanics to interact with (Super Mario Bros. 3, which was admittedly not minimalistic by the standards then, but sort of is now).

Dwarfs, unfortunately, does none of these. It feels empty and cluttered, simultaneously. As I was playing, I kept running into these difficult questions that I had no good answer for. Why are there both lava and water, when they behave so similarly? Why do dwarves have levels? Why does dynamite require a dwarf to trigger it? Why are there travel instructions that tunnel through walls, but no way to say "travel to this destination as fast as possible, don't bother tunneling unless you have to"? Many of these features feel less like gameplay mechanics and more like click consumers.

Which is what I was mulling over until I ran into this level:

And suddenly it all made sense.

Dwarfs isn't a strategy game, and it's not a tactics game. Dwarfs is a micromanagement game. All those mechanics that I called "click consumers"? That's exactly what they are! The game isn't about optimizing the movement of your dwarves, or building a cave structure, or building an army. The game is about making as many points as possible in the shortest period of time as possible. Optimal play means speeding up the game as much as possible, and only slowing it down when doing otherwise would cause you to lose. Practice, in this game, is maybe one third strategy, and two thirds simply clicking faster.

Now, again, this isn't necessarily a bad thing. This is similar to why I don't play Starcraft II and I'm never, ever going to claim that Starcraft II is a bad game.

But I also don't think it makes for good gameplay. If the difficulty is in micromanagement, then the player is left playing the interface. Take Dwarfs, and add a "route automatically through tunnels" option, and the game gets easier. Add a "automatically dispatch dwarf to trigger dynamite" feature, and the game, again, gets easier. Take Civilization and add whatever pure UI change you want and the game is left unchanged. When I'm playing a game, I want to play the game, not the UI, and Dwarfs is all about playing the UI.

If you look through the campaign levels, this becomes increasingly obvious. The game contain a tutorial plus five "campaign" levels. The tutorial is about what you'd expect (and is admittedly well-done), but the campaign starts gimmicky and ends gimmicky.

In order:

To Battle!: Defeat a number of enemies with a small squad of warriors. There's no standard mining in this battle, it's solely about choosing the right group of enemies to fight next, with a bit of micromanagement if you want the best result.

Castastrophe: You start on a map with at least a dozen pools of water and lava about to be breached. Survive for several minutes. Again, there's no standard mining, it's just learning to very quickly deal with all the mining disasters.

To The Point: The screenshots provided above. Get a number of points within a strict time limit.

The More The…: Create a large number of dwarves within a strict time limit. Again, this comes down to "hold the speed button as much as you can", with a slight emphasis on building outposts (which you can avoid in earlier levels.)

Godspeed: Survive for several minutes with a Speed button that is never released.

None of these missions introduce significant new mechanics. The first two are gimmicks where a large chunk of the gameplay mechanics are removed, without any new gameplay mechanics added. The latter three are "play the game quickly", and aside from a slight difference in scoring on "The More The…", are essentially "hey, go play the game".

The game also includes a handful of variant modes. Rush Mode, in which dwarves spawn faster. Dark Mode, in which the board is blacked out and you can only see where you've dug. Sandbox, where you can create cave layouts and spawn monsters and dwarves at will. And, finally, a Tower Defense mode. Now, to me, these feel like old development experiments and tools, not fleshed-out game features. The "Sound Test" of modern games.

Sometimes, I complain about games because I don't think they figured out what they wanted to be. I don't think that's what happened to Dwarfs. I think the real issue with Dwarfs is that they had a game in mind, and they made the game, and then instead of polishing their base gameplay to a mirror finish, they threw in a bunch of other features for the people who didn't like their base game mechanics.

And while many may like those game mechanics . . . I will admit that I don't, and the rest of the game doesn't save it for me.

I'll be watching for the next thing the developers do, because it's clear they're skilled, but I'm not going to be playing any more Dwarfs.

Nieuwe Aarde Postmortem

2010, May 3rd 5:22 PM

So. Nieuwe Aarde, that game I made for Ludum Dare in 48 hours.

This is going to be one of the toughest postmortems I've written.

What Worked

Well, first of all, it's fun. I'm getting a lot of commentary saying that they enjoyed figuring it out and that they think it's an enjoyable game overall. That's cool. I seem to have done a good job with the base game mechanics and the interface, I'm having very few people tell me that they simply couldn't figure it out.

The art, while not spectacular, is servicable and nonconfusing. The game feel is consistent. The tooltips work absolutely great for explaining the concepts.

I also appear to have nailed the difficulty. I've had a few complaints that it's way too easy, and a few complaints that it's way too hard, but the bulk seems to fall into the categories of "it's tough, but I beat it" and "it's tough, and I didn't beat it, but I think I could have if I'd put more time into it."

For doing it within 48 hours, it turned out great. Compare it to my earlier games – I spent a third as much time on this one, and I think it turned out better. My tools are maturing like you wouldn't believe and I'm just getting faster and more skilled at this whole thing.

So, in summary, I made a good game.

What Didn't Work

The problem is that I didn't make the game I wanted to.

The original goal was Desktop Dungeons meets Seafarers of Catan. Desktop Dungeons is a clever small-scale dungeon crawler which is designed so that almost every single move is critically important. Sure, you can get a nice lead, but that lead can be whittled down rapidly by bad luck. Doing "as well as you can" is critical, every step of the way, and each time you click it had better be the right click.

Nieuwe Aarde doesn't succeed in that. You'll spend a large part of the game clicking "Work" over and over, for example. Clicking a few too many times? Totally okay! Building the wrong thing entirely? You can probably recover! There's very little that has to be timed exactly, and the game design itself isn't conducive to the sort of miniature puzzle where you're trying to scrape out the last little possible iota of advantage.

I still think it may be possible, but if I want to do it, I'm going to have to start from basics again.

The Bottom Line

I made a fun game, but I made the wrong game. I'm not really sure whether I want to call this a success or not.

On the other hand, I made a fun game. If this is failure, I wouldn't mind failing more often.

Nieuwe Aarde

2010, April 25th 3:45 PM

The planet is dying.

Monsters raise themselves out of the ocean monthly. The skies themselves blacken.

You, and your civilization, have but one choice: amass enough magical power to leap across the starless void, to another, safer planet. But you're racing against time – every day the attacks get stronger.

The planet is dying, and it's taking you with it.

Ludum Dare competition page and voting

Windows (.zip version available)
Mac OSX (10.6 or higher)

Nieuwe Aarde was made for Ludum Dare 17, a 48-hour game development competition. Yeah, that's right, my normal week-long development process was compressed into two days.

Ouch.

The theme for this event was Islands, and so Islands is what I did! Nieuwe Aarde was inspired by Desktop Dungeons and Seafarers of Catan, and I feel like I've made a reasonably coherent little single-player strategy game with a whole pile of tooltips.

Postmortem up in a few days. Time to start on the next project!

3.5 Hours Of Development

2010, April 23rd 10:40 PM

Thought I'd give you a quick peek of my next short project, as well as an idea of what this stuff looks like early on.

I bet you want to know what those buttons do, don't you? Well they don't do anything whatsoever. You push them, they highlight, and then nothing happens.

But this is what 3.5 hours of development gets me. Tomorrow I'll hook the buttons up to work, and then see if the game design works. Might work. Might not. We'll see!

GT Multitude

2010, February 18th 5:53 PM

I had an idea for a game design. It turned out to be . . . shall we say . . . dubious.

Windows (.zip version available)
Mac OSX (10.6 or higher)

I'll just write up a postmortem here.

The theme for this month was Rejection. The idea I had was to take some basic swarming behavior, then make the creatures in the swarm gradually pay less attention to you. Your "livelihood" depended on influencing your friendly swarm creatures, and thus, as they ignored you, you'd die.

The problem with behaviors of this sort is that it's tough to accomplish both "interesting behavior" and "sufficiently controllable with the user". Even in the current version – the best balance I was able to get – some of the interesting swarm mechanics go away when the user gets close. I had some versions where the player was fundamentally unable to interact with the creatures in a predictable manner, I had some versions where the creatures essentially became mindless slaves of the user.

Fundamentally, I wasn't able to come up with any really interesting mechanics. Nothing I did was fun, and I didn't find myself enjoying playing my own game. That's a bad sign.

I don't think anything really went directly wrong with this – it was an experimental concept, and it didn't pan out. These things happen. Hopefully next month will be a little more successful.

I picked up a few neat games on Steam, and naturally that led to me picking up more neat games on Steam, and someone suggested I try out Dawn of War and that led to me grabbing a pack of like fifteen games including several I'd always meant to play and long story short I just tried out Stalker: Shadow of Chernobyl.

Stalker is a game about a man in the wastes of radioactive Chernobyl who has lost his memory. He wakes up with very few possessions to his name – a leather jacket, a pistol, a knife, and a seemingly Godlike ability to rewind the flow of time.

The developers didn't really intend that last one. But when they put in the ability to save and reload anywhere, that's pretty much what they ended up with.

But oh boy howdy is he a lucky man! Because, see, the wastes of Chernobyl are deadly indeed. For one thing, they're vastly radioactive, and a few steps in an unfortunate direction can pretty much instantly kill you. They're infested with mutant wildlife which possesses the ability to leap out of bushes and also pretty much instantly kill you. And if the wildlife doesn't get you, the bandits might. The bandits are unlike the other menaces – at close range they actually do instantly kill you.

And then you hit "reload", only this time, you know where the bandits are.

Theory: Unlimited saving of your game is the worst thing that has ever been invented.

Alright. Not the worst. But it's well up there, and its grip on the PC gaming world is seemingly unshakable. Imagine the following series of events.

First, people start saving their game. Everywhere. Absolutely everywhere. Get out of a battle in good shape, save your game. Prepare to go into a battle, save your game. Run thirty seconds across the world, save your game. Take five steps, save your game.

Get out of a battle in bad shape, reload your game. After all, why cripple yourself? You'll do better next time. You can ace that battle. And you will ace that battle. And you'll ace the next one, too, with your excess of firepower. And the one after that. And then you'll go and complain on message boards that the game is too easy.

So what do the developers do?

Make the game harder.

And suddenly a new player can't beat the game without doing the tango. Every battle is instant death. Every mission has to be done twice – once to scout, once to win. Every enemy outpost is a neon gravemarker, with words engraved upon, reading "Here, Jakob, Son of Smyth, Reloaded his Game Twyce before Going The Othyr Way, since Somehow he was now Psychically Aware of the Enemys."

Does anyone enjoy this? Anyone, anywhere, ever?

And this is not a hard issue to solve! It's been solved! Halo did it. Ratchet and Clank did it. Much more recently, Brutal Legend did it. In none of these games is it possible to lose, and in none of these games is it possible to do the save/reload tango. Death is handled by resurrecting you at the last checkpoint or at the beginning of the current mission. "Reloading" is equivalent to "dying" in that it drops you back to the same spot. In R&C and Brutal you can always abort a mission, going back in time to just before you accepted it, and go do something else. You cannot fail – only try again – and thus there is no incentive to stepping your way through the game five perfect seconds at a time.

And I look at this simple elegant solution, and I cannot help but think: why is this not used for every game? Why are games still made where you are even permitted to save whenever you want? Why, when it is so vastly detrimental to game balance, when it is so positively and thoroughly inimical to actual fun?

What game mechanic does save-anywhere actually allow?

I still haven't come up with an answer to this.

Mobius

2009, September 28th 4:09 AM

Download installer here (advanced: zip version)

I'm taking a pretty serious diversion from my previous game designs. Mobius isn't a sidescroller in any sense, and in fact, it's controlled largely using the mouse. We're into realtime strategy here, folks. Well . . . realtime tactics.

Beyond that, however, I'm not saying a whole lot about Mobius right now. Download it. Play it. Let me know what you think.

I'll follow up with a postmortem in a bit.