The Complexity Budget: Removing Repetition

2012, January 28th 10:35 AM

This is part two of this increasingly enormous writeup on complexity. I recommend reading Part One before we get started.

The concept behind this megapost really started about two years ago, when I played a pair of games that made unexpected but excellent design choices. Later, I found a third. In each case, the game removed an uninteresting mechanic that had become a staple of the genre, and in doing so, unearthed some new interesting mechanics that had gone unnoticed.

Just to warn you: two of these games don't really succeed. That's what happens when you try experimental things. But they're all intriguing games, and they all open up areas of game design that I think are worth analysis.

First off: Gyromancer.

Gyromancer is, at its core, a big-budget version of Puzzle Quest. Puzzle Quest is, itself, Bejeweled with an RPG grafted on. In the case of Gyromancer it's Bejeweled Twist, with a pile of surprisingly pretty art and a plotline that's . . . well, it's a plotline. We'll just go with that.

Most of the complexity of Gyromancer (yeah, we're back to complexity, you saw that coming) is tied up in your abilities, your opponent's abilities, and the effect of gems on the board. All of these have to be dealt with rather carefully. Spells can morph the board rapidly and only somewhat predictably, your opponent does quite a lot of damage when he attacks, and many of your abilities interact in complex ways.

And on top of this, you have to play Bejeweled.

Bejeweled Twist, at that, which is a more complicated variant – instead of the relatively simple block-swapping mechanic, you have to rotate a square of four blocks. It's a little harder to understand the side effects of a move and a little tougher to come up with long-term plans. Now, I'm sure Bejeweled experts will have no trouble with the mechanic, but I am not a Bejeweled expert, and I had trouble with it. The game has a lot of mechanics piled on top of each other and it was almost too much to handle.

I say "almost" because the developers made one little concession to crummy players like me. See, your cursor lights up when it's held over a valid rotation. This means that you figure out incorrect moves before you click and screw up. This also means that if you can't find the valid move, you can just skim over the entire board watching for your cursor to light up in order to find it.

In other words, they took out some of the complexity of "find possible next moves", and they moved that complexity into "choose the right ability or move to make". Being a Bejeweled expert is no longer as necessary, and training your eyes to detect valid Bejeweled moves isn't as needed. Instead, you can devote that time to choosing the right move to make.

But imagine what would have happened if they'd gone even further. Instead of telling you whether a chosen move is valid, they could simply show all valid moves. They could have removed all the difficulty of finding a move and simply left the player to figure out the best move. Even less player effort in the brute-force scanning, freeing up time and effort for the interesting decisions! I'm not going to claim this would have been a better game – I suspect I'm not the target audience – but it would have been a game I personally found more interesting. If I'd wanted to play Bejeweled, I would have played Bejeweled, but really I was most interested in the new mechanics, which Bejeweled masked.

Next up, we've got SquareLogic.

SquareLogic can be best described as Sudoku on acid. Sudoku takes place in a 9×9 grid, further divided into nine 3×3 boxes. You must fill each box with a number from 1 through 9. You can't use the same number twice in a row, or twice in a column, or twice in a 3×3 box.

SquareLogic, on the other hand, goes from 4×4 through 9×9. You're roughly limited to the same count of numbers – a 4×4 grid will take numbers 1 through 4, a 9×9 grid will take 1 through 9 – and you're still subject to the row/column restrictions. But it gets far weirder from there. First, while SquareLogic does have subcontainers, they aren't necessarily square. They might be rectangles. They might be strange bendy shapes. Worse, these containers don't care about uniqueness. They care about other things. For example, you might have a 24x container, which means that the product of the numbers within the container must be 24. Maybe that's 1*2*3*4. Maybe that's 1*1*4*6. You might think it could be 2*2*2*3, but you'd be wrong – remember, you can't have the same number duplicated in a row or a column, and there's no way to lay out 2*2*2*3 such that no two 2's share a row or column. But 1*1*4*6 would fit in an S-shape, with the two 1's on opposite ends.

That's not all, though! SquareLogic doesn't tell you where the containers are. You're given one square in each container, and the rest of the container locations have to be derived logically. Sometimes that's easy: if the container is "12x", you know it needs to be at least two squares large. Sometimes that's tougher, though: is "12x" two, three, or four squares?

And then, just when you feel confident in that, SquareLogic throws double-board puzzles at you. Two boards, the same solution on each board, but different containers. You'll have to solve them simultaneously to win, as neither board has enough detail to get a full solution.

All of this could easily become overwhelming. In fact, just the busywork could be overwhelming – Sudoku-style games require that you keep track of which numbers have been used in which rows or columns. But SquareLogic, after throwing an enormous amount of complexity in your face, quietly shuffles much of the busywork away and takes care of it for you. Each box contains, greyed-out and in small type, all possible numbers that could fit there. You can eliminate numbers manually by right-clicking them. But if you make a decision and place a number in its final location, SquareLogic instantly clears all instances of that number from that row and column, as you can guarantee the number won't show up in any other similar places. The busywork is boring, and the computer can do it, so why shouldn't it?

SquareLogic helps in other ways. If you mouseover a container, it will list all possibilities. Mousing over 12x will show 3*4, 1*2*6, 1*3*4, 2*2*3, 1*1*3*4, and 1*2*2*3. If you've determined that your 12x container is only three squares large, it will restrict that down to 1*2*6, 1*3*4, and 2*2*3. If you've shown that none of the squares can contain a 3, it will cross out 1*3*4 and 2*2*3, leaving you with just 1*2*6. Sure, you could do it by hand, but does anyone want to spend their life trying to factor numbers?

(Especially the larger numbers – multiplication containers can easily reach the thousands, as 6*7*8*9 = 3024. I don't want to factor 3024. That's why I own a computer.)

The end result is a horrendously complicated, but surprisingly manageable, puzzle. When you get stuck, it's usually because you missed something clever, not because you misclicked or forgot to cross out an option. Since the game keeps track of all the little mental details for you, your brainspace is available for the far more interesting logical derivation.

But it's worth noting what SquareLogic didn't automate. SquareLogic will never actually choose a number for you, even if you've eliminated all alternatives. SquareLogic will happily tell you that there's only one possibility for a container, but it will never narrow down the elements in that container without your explicit input. The automation is solely limited to removing row/column conflicts and informing you about container possibilities. If you go too far, you end up writing a game that plays itself. SquareLogic went further than most do, but not too much further, opting to stay back and leave the fun bits up to the player.

Last, though with unarguably the highest budget of any of these games: Final Fantasy 13, and specifically, FF13's combat system.

(Before I continue: no, it hasn't escaped my attention that all of these games either involve squares or are made by Square. I promise this is a coincidence.)

From Final Fantasy 1 all the way through Final Fantasy 10, the most fundamental assumptions of Final Fantasy's combat system remained unchanged. You controlled a party of characters, from one to four at a time. Each character had a number of abilities, generally including Attack, Magic, Item, and a special gimmicky thing. Each character attacked in some order – generally determined by the character's speed – and used a single command at a time to damage the enemies, heal friendlies, or cast helpful (or harmful) spells. The enemies did the same, interspersed with your units.

There were many variations, of course. Some games used an "active time battle" system where characters attacked somewhat in realtime, although this was essentially a realtime wrapper around a turnbased game. For a while, every Final Fantasy game came up with a new way to gain magic, from Espers to Materia to Guardian Forces to the Sphere Grid. In FF7, your characters' spells were highly customizable before battle. In FF10, your characters could be swapped out at a moment's notice in a fight. FF8 let you buff your characters by "attaching" spells to them. It got complicated. But the fundamental design didn't change – one character took their turn and did something, the next character took their turn and did something.

FF11 broke the pattern by virtue of a genre change. FF11 was a massively multiplayer game, where you controlled a single character, and your party fought as a cohesive, realtime group. The gameplay didn't surprise anyone, at least after the MMO layout was announced – MMOs don't work with the old Final Fantasy method. But FF11 heavily influenced FF12. In many ways, FF12 felt like a single-player MMO. Instead of controlling a party, you directed a party – you wrote general-purpose scripts to automate what you intended, then gave direct commands to your characters when you needed to override their behavior.

Which taught us some very curious things. It turns out that the old Final Fantasy combat style is, fundamentally, very repetitive. Classic Final Fantasy combat consists of three things: healing, buffing, and attacking. First, make sure nobody's about to die. Then, cast the spells that make your characters vastly better. Finally, kill the bad guys. Most of this can be automated. In fact, the only part that takes any thought is "attacking", as various monsters require different attack spells. For example, robots are vulnerable to lightning, so if you're fighting robots, hit them with lightning. That's all the thought you need to put into it, though – after you've figured that bit out, it tends to be quite formulaic.

When FF12 automated all the basic bits, they were able to use that freed-up gamespace and make the bosses more complicated.

Now, FF12 didn't do a great job of it, because in order to play the game efficiently you basically had to be a programmer. Your characters had little automated scripts that you had to design. If you weren't good at that kind of process design, you sucked at the game. But FF13 took this to another level altogether.

In FF13, you didn't really control your characters at all. Instead of telling them what to do, you told them how to behave. For example, you'd tell one character "be a healer", and that character would start lobbing heal spells around to keep everyone else alive. You'd tell another character "cast buffs", and that character would automatically choose appropriate buffs and keep your party fully augmented. At the same time, FF12 took the old three-role Final Fantasy system and split it into a whopping six roles. The "buff" role was joined by a "debuff" role. They picked up a fully functional tank role, able to absorb firepower and take minimal amounts of damage. And, in a rather uncommon twist, "damage the bad guys" was split into two separate roles – a Ravager that gradually knocked the enemy off-balance, and a Commando that did enormous amounts of damage, but only once the enemy was off-balance.

Now, you did have direct control over one character, but to be honest, most of the time you just mashed the "do whatever you would normally do" button. The AI was smart enough to prioritize buffs intelligently and it understood which debuffs worked on the enemy. The tank would do a good job of keeping damage contained, the healer would distribute healing spells appropriately, and the various damage roles would quickly figure out the right spells to use and . . . well . . . use them. Instead of spamming Lightning on the robots, you watched while your characters spammed Lightning on the robots.

And as you'd expect, this opened room for more complicated bosses. Bosses in FF13 are truly deadly – a few turns of the wrong actions will often result in a party wipe and a game-over. Your characters will respond quickly, and do an amazing job of efficient damage mitigation and recovery, leaving the only real in-battle decision to a moment-by-moment choice between party roles, deciding on the fly which combination of roles will prevent your party from dying and kill the boss.

Which is, in many ways, where FF13 fails. You simply don't have enough choices. I'm all for automating the repetitive parts, but it turns out that the Final Fantasy combat model is repetitive parts. When you take away all the repetition, and don't replace it with something new, you're left without a game. In the case of Final Fantasy, the "game" becomes recognizing the right response to half a dozen boss abilities. When boss does this, you mash Tank button. When boss does this, you have time to rebuff. When boss does this, you can go back to kill mode.

The problem is that the roles are very, very specialized. If you need a tank character – and you often do – that's a full third of your party's functionality tied up. If you need a healer as well, that's another third. That leaves you with one character left to do damage, and that's only if you don't need buffing or debuffing. The game stops being about fighting the monster and starts being about juggling role timings.

Which is admittedly an interesting mechanic. Perhaps not one that stands on its own, but one that could be used as part of a much better game. And a mechanic that simply wouldn't have been uncovered without automating all the boring parts of combat.

So, what's the conclusion to all this?

I've talked about three games that got rid of large parts of their complexity. In the case of SquareLogic, I think it was a clear win. In the case of Gyromancer and FF13, I think it was a bit more dubious as a game, but quite valuable as research. The real lesson is that removing obvious sources of complexity does not always result in a better game, but it does usually result in learning more about your game and finding unexpected deposits of fun deep inside your game's emergent behavior. Even if you don't want to do it in your final release, it may be worth trying it out as an experiment, just to see what you discover.

And that neatly segues into our third entry, in which I'll compare pairs of games to see how differences in complexity layout can result in vastly different gameplay. I'll see you again next time. :)

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.

Back in 2010, this game called Rocketbirds Revolution showed up as an Independent Game Festival finalist for Audio and Visual Art, an award it richly deserved. Rocketbirds had a distinctive art style and sound. They did something which is largely unheard of in the game industry – they got an actual band to do their music, and the band's style complements the game's style perfectly. Even past the sound and cutscenes, the developers clearly put an incredible amount of effort into the art, as the entire game is filled with gorgeous backdrops and animations.

More recently, the same developer released Rocketbirds Hardboiled Chicken. R:HC is a remastered version of the original R:R game, with an additional half-dozen levels grafted on the end and a pile of cutscenes. See this intro for an example. It's pretty dang badass. The game is filled with similar cutscenes, and every one of them is enjoyable and stylistic.

The whole contraption didn't quite gel for me.

Rocketbirds has trouble figuring out what it's about. On one front, it's a sidescrolling action game, with plenty of guns and enemies to mow down (see: Shoot Many Robots). On another front, it's a puzzle game – the Hardboiled Chicken spends a surprising amount of time pushing crates around (see: Abe's Oddysee). On a third front, it's an atmospheric game, with a distinctive art style and soundtrack (see: Limbo).

Now, all of these things are totally awesome. Seriously, I'd joyfully play any of the games I just described. The problem is that Rocketbirds didn't have the funding or time to do all of it well.

The action game, for example – the Hardboiled Chicken gains multiple guns as he travels through the game. But almost each one of these guns is just a number increase over the previous weapon. New gun? More damage! Since your enemies are upgrading at the same time, this comes across as just a number treadmill. Bigger gun -> tougher enemy -> back where you started. Worse, the majority of the Hardboiled Chicken combat isn't really about firepower, it's about stuns. Shoot anyone, they're stunned for several seconds. If you're facing a single opponent, here's your strategy: you shoot them, they're paralyzed, they die. If you're facing multiple opponents in one direction, here's your strategy: you shoot them, and hope you manage to hit the guy in back before he fires his weapon. If you're facing opponents on both sides of you, here's your strategy: shoot one, then the other, and keep swapping back and forth to keep them off-balance, and eventually they die.

None of the weapons change this fundamental mechanic. Sure, you get a shotgun which does a ton of damage at close range and almost no damage at long-range, but this just isn't relevant to the combat – it simply means you kill the enemies faster, if they're at close range, and slower if they're at long-range. Or change to a longer-range gun.

The puzzle game includes three major gimmicks: crates can be pushed, doors can be unlocked with keys, and you can take over the minds of your enemies. That latter one has a lot of potential for cool puzzles (again, see Abe's Oddysee), but that potential isn't really exploited. Abe's Oddysee made it a fantastic game mechanic through providing new abilities to each creature type, but in Rocketbirds, the monsters have a strict subset of the protagonist's abilities. Mind control is nothing more than a way to pass through inconvenient walls.

And then there's the plotline. In Rocketbirds Revolution, the plot was thin at best – the Hardboiled Chicken is trapped behind enemy lines and must fight his way out, destroying the bulk of the enemy forces at the same time. In Hardboiled Chicken, this plot was augmented by a pile of stylistic music videos.

The problem is that this doesn't really improve the plotline. I don't want to watch these music videos, I want to play them. They actually look like a lot of fun! Sure, it's not the most innovative plotline, but whatever – it's an action game, I'm fine with that! Instead, though, we're relegated to watching cutscenes that look more interesting than the actual game's plot.

Once you get out of Rocketbirds Revolution, and into Rocketbirds Hardboiled Chicken, everything kicks up a notch. The combat gets a bit more deadly, the puzzles get a little deeper, the plot moves away from cutscenes and into the game itself. But even during this segment, it never quite clicks. The combat is deadly, sure, but it's still not interesting – the game mechanics are unchanged. The puzzles are still mostly restricted to "walk everywhere, then mind-control the guy standing in a place you can't reach". The plot eventually moves to a full assault on the penguin castle followed by chasing the evil leader Putski, who escapes in a rocket, into space.

Which, I'll admit, is pretty neat. It's a step down from the coming-of-age story shown in cutscenes, but it's certainly better than the non-plot provided in the first half of the game.

Then you hit the final boss battle and the combat takes a major step up.

The final boss is actually a really complicated boss fight. It involves the boss, a near-endless swarm of simpler enemies, and – unlike every other battle in the game – takes place across multiple screens. The boss an invulnerable energy shield that he only brings up occasionally, powerups can be requested with some delay, and the terrain is varied enough to make it a significant, though not critical, part of the fight.

It turns out that, given the appropriate battlefield and enemies, Hardboiled Chicken's combat is really good. The final boss suffers from a few problems – you haven't actually been taught many of the tactics you need to use, for example – but overall, that boss is the highlight of the entire game. It's a fast-paced battle requiring you to really know the character and really know the mechanics and it flows better than the entire rest of the game.

Which makes me wonder what the game could have been like if they'd started with those game mechanics, then gone from there.

In the end, that's the most disappointing part. It's clear the designers are able to make really good games – they just, in this case, didn't. I'm not sure it was worth the effort to go back and remaster the original Rocketbirds Revolution. Fact is, Revolution just isn't as good as Hardboiled Chicken – so why spend all those resources on replaying Revolution? Why not make an entire new game, with entire new mechanics, set in the same universe?

In the end, Rocketbirds Hardboiled Chicken feels like a teaser. It's saying, "hey, look, we could have a good game here! We don't, but we could." Which is crazy disappointing . . . but also leaves me optimistic for that developer's future games.

Rocketbirds II, guys. Let's see it.

Balancing Difficulty The Easy Way

2011, October 31st 11:35 AM

Has anyone here played a perfectly balanced game?

I don't mean a game balanced perfectly for one player. We've all played games like that. Oh man, we think afterwards, that was very difficult. I barely made it through! Clearly I am awesome.

No, I mean games balanced perfectly for every player. Balanced so that everyone enjoys the game and thinks it was well-designed. Balanced so the guy who just wants to walk through the game and nuke everything can enjoy themselves, and the girl who wants to slam her head against fiendishly difficult monsters for hours on end can make it through and feel proud of a major accomplishment.


While working on an MMO, I hear balance complaints all the time. Sometimes it's interplay between the various classes, and that's understandable – if your friend really is just flat-out stronger than you, well, that's a balance bug. But sometimes it's complaints about the game difficulty. One person says "this boss is too hard, I couldn't beat him in three hours of trying!" while another says "this boss is too easy, I beat him after only three hours of trying!"

Well, fuck.

But if I think about it, I've seen games solve this. Two games, in fact. And I'm going to talk about these games.

First, The World Ends With You. I've talked about TWEWY before, though not on this subject.

In TWEWY, you could voluntarily choose to reduce the player's level. You lost hit points and attack power. In return, you got improved drop rates. Reduce your level by one, you got double drop rates. Reduce it by nine, you got tenfold increased drop rates. Level up to 100 and drop your level all the way to one – kabam, hundredfold increased drop rates!

You could also choose to change the game difficulty. By default, you were on Normal. Early on, you unlock Easy. Later, you unlock Hard. Eventually you unlock Ultimate. Each difficulty gives you new drop items from monsters, giving some of the rarest items in the game.

Note that I didn't say rarest and most powerful.

Power, in TWEWY, is surprisingly unrelated to drops. For one thing, many of your powers can be leveled up to reach the top tier of effectiveness. For another thing, many of the "higher-tier" powers aren't actually much stronger at all. Finally, you need only one copy of each power. If you have twenty copies of a power, it doesn't make you any stronger, it doesn't make the game easier. It just gives you more to sell. Which you can use to buy more powers . . . that also aren't really any stronger.

These difficulty settings are also extremely transient. You can change difficulty, or raise or lower your level, at any time you're not in battle. It's easy, it doesn't cost anything. Want the next battle to be tough? Make it tough. Want it easy? Make it easy. Additionally, almost every fight can be backed out of. You can just say "no, I want to cancel this fight, let's go back before the fight." Defeat works the same way – the "game over" screen asks if you want to try again, back out to before the fight, or change your difficulty. Want to try a boss on hard mode and get slaughtered fifty times in a row? Go ahead. The game will let you do so easily. Give up and want to just breeze through? Sure, no sweat, let's do that.

Next, let's talk about Bastion.

First, you should go play Bastion. It's really, really good.

In Bastion, you can choose to activate Idols. Each Idol represents a god. Gods aren't helpful in the world of Bastion – each god makes the game harder in some manner. Maybe enemies move faster, or slow you when they attack, or gradually heal their wounds. Or maybe you turn all ten Idols on, and the enemies absolutely wreck you. The game gets incredibly tough.

The difficulty settings, again, are quite transient. Unlike Twewy, you're stuck doing a level as a single unified run – you usually can't change settings in the middle – but the game is perfectly happy to let you tweak settings between levels. There's also no penalty for losing besides having to try again, so if you die horribly, turn an Idol or two off and give it another shot. Or just give it another shot with the same idols. Your call.

Each Idol increases your rewards a little, however – both experience and money. Experience is used for leveling up, which is surprisingly unhelpful. Money is used for buying things, which is also surprisingly unhelpeful. The gods don't increase your experience and money very much – from 5% to 10% per god, coming out to a total of under 100% with every God turned on. The end result is that the benefit from turning the idols on is nowhere near the magnitude of the penalty – you'll farm experience and money faster with the idols off, simply thanks to how much easier the creatures are to kill.

You've probably noticed similarities in these descriptions.

Each game lets you customize the difficulty in whatever manner you choose. If you want one level to be easy, and the next to be tough, it's your choice and the game won't stop you. Each game gives rewards for increasing the difficulty . . . but largely irrelevant rewards. They don't really make you stronger, just give you an excuse for the difficulty changes. The games don't penalize you for choosing an easier mode, nor do they really reward you for a harder mode.

I'm really liking this idea, and I think it should be used in more places.

Take Halo. Let's say at any point, you can go into the menu and change the difficulty. When you do, you're popped back to the last checkpoint (note that checkpoints in Halo are quite common.) The game keeps track of which checkpoints you've done at which difficulty and gives awards based on them. Maybe if you've done things at higher difficulty, Want to go back and replay something in a tougher mode? Go for it. No skin off our back.

Take any MMO of your choice. You get a little difficulty slider. Easy, Medium, Hard, Deadly. You can change it at will, and it makes you weaker and makes the enemies hit harder. Each quest keeps track of the easiest difficulty you were in while doing the quest. If you do the quest on a harder difficulty, you get a little extra money (money never matters in MMOs) and maybe a little shiny collector's token that you can turn in for vanity gear.

Want an easy ride? Do it on Easy, the plot's still all there. Want a challenge? Flip it over to Deadly, and now every single monster is potential death.

The only games this *doesn't* work well with are games that can't be easily chopped into bitesized pieces. I'm not sure how to apply it to Civilization, for example. I think you're just stuck there.

But if your game can be chopped up into pieces, and especially if death is not intended to be a catastrophe, and especially if it's very skillbased, then I'd strongly recommend considering this.

Or, at least the very least, play Bastion and TWEWY, then consider it.

Or just play Bastion and TWEWY. Seriously. They're great games.

Age of Empires Online came out recently. I played it for a bit.

It's fun. They did a good job with the beginning, at the very least. You have quests, like a normal MMO, but each "quest" is an real-time-strategy mission. It's pretty cleverly built, to be honest – if one mission is too tough, you can come back to it later after you've leveled up a bit. "Leveling up a bit" is what replaces the old tech unlocking process. Instead of saying "after mission 12 you can use ballistas", they say "after you gain 12 tech points you can use ballistas", and each mission gives you a tech point, and you can reset your tech points for a fee if you want to try a different build. So that's cool.

It also has an inventory system. You can collect equipment for your units. Equipping units gives your units bonuses. I didn't get far enough to see if this is a tradeoff deal, where you'll be sitting there saying "hmm, do I want faster cavalry or stronger cavalry", or whether it's just a strict linear upgrade sequence. But it exists. Along with inventory comes crafting, where you can take raw materials that you find and turn them into gear, and I'm assuming there's an auction house and trading and all the standard stuff that comes along with crafting.

It's an interesting approach, and I'm not sure if I think it's a good idea – a good RTS is balanced on a razor wire, and this feels like wildly shaking the razor wire. But this entry isn't about that.

Age of Empires Online is "free-to-play" with "micropayments". You'll notice the scare quotes. First off, the micropayments are pretty damn macro. The cheapest things you can buy are $5, and those are purely cosmetic items for your capital city, and there's four of them. For the price of all the cosmetic items, you could buy the X-Com Complete Pack on Steam – including five games, two of which are great and a third of which is totally playable as long as you don't get frustrated easily – and still have cash left for an overpriced coffee.

You can also buy the Premium Civilization Packs. These take the civilization you choose and give you . . . well, the rest of the civilization. See, it's free to play, but it's not really free to play everything. Large segments of the game, including a lot of the gear you get, including Advisors, including a good chunk of the game's economy, are only available if you buy the complete packs, which cost $20 each. Keep in mind there's one of these per civilization. If I've been playing Greek, and I decide I want to switch to Egypt, I get to fork over another $20 for it. That's the price of an entire game.

Then there's a game mode, Defense of Crete, that costs another $10.

And the thing is that I sorta want to play these modes. I enjoy the game. It's fun. It's a nice timekiller between doing other things. But the game spends an incredible amount of time telling me I'm a second-class citizen. "You should learn a crafting skill! You can learn two! Yay, you've learned one! What, you want to learn a second? Haha, I'm sorry, you need a premium civilization for that. Lol. Loser. Hey go do this mission, you get rare equipment from it! You can't use the equipment, but you can totally look at it. Man. Isn't that shiny? Premium civilization, dude. You could make and sell gear like this! Oh, wait, I'm sorry, you need a premium civilization for that. $20. Fork it over."

Which reminds me a lot of Puzzle Pirates. Puzzle Pirates has a similar system, where large parts of the game are locked away. If you want to do all the trade puzzles, you need a trade badge. If you want to captain a ship, you need a captain badge. If you want to go sea monster hunting, you need a sea monster badge.

The difference is that, in Puzzle Pirates, these badges don't cost money. They cost doubloons. And there's two ways to buy doubloons. First, you can pay money for them. Second, you can pay in-game money for them . . . by buying them from other people who paid real money for them.

Realize that Puzzle Pirates still gets just as much cash either way. It doesn't matter who bought the doubloons. Someone bought them, and then someone spent them, and there's no need for those people to be the same person. For someone like me, who treats the game as a fun timewaster, this is perfect. I can burn some time enjoying my puzzling, make ingame money, use that money to buy doubloons, and get access to further parts of the game.

And here's the brilliant part. If, later, I decide I need a ton of ingame money to buy a boat, I can fork over $10 on doubloons, turn those doubloons into ingame money through the exact same trading system, and buy a boat without having to grind.

No matter what game you're making, there will always be people who would like to trade time for ingame shinies and people who would like to trade real money for time. These people are your best friends because, together, they give you money that you would never have gotten otherwise. But if you don't allow those transactions – if you cater only to the group of people who want to trade real money for ingame shinies – then you're cutting out a significant portion of your userbase.

One last story before I wrap this up. Recently, Eve Online added a new cosmetic item: a monocle. The monocle could be purchased in their online store for Aurum, a currency similar to Puzzle Pirates' Doubloons. A little math quickly demonstrated that this monocle would cost $60 if you were to buy it with real money. The community hated it – what moron would pay $60 for a virtual monocle – but CCP stuck to their guns. In two days, they sold fifty of 'em.

I don't know for sure, but I'd wager that the majority of those weren't purchased with dollars. There are a lot of players in Eve Online who have horrifying amounts of ingame money. I'd wager that a lot of those monocles were the result of a player saying "hey, that space monocle is pretty, and I'm space-rich, so, I'll buy it with my space money!"

And yet, CCP still made $3000 in two days, possibly without anyone giving them a single dollar for a monocle.

Guys: Knock it off with the free-to-play games with twenty-dollar mandatory micropayments. Make a sensible economy, then rig things up so that your devoted players can give you extra money and your broke players can consume it. It benefits us all.

I totally have an idea for a post.

In fact, I totally have two ideas for posts. They're good ideas. They will make good posts.

Unfortunately, I just spent the first chunk of the month preparing for the Digital Game Museum booth at PAX, and now – right before the month ends – I'm heading out to Burning Man. So. We're not getting a post this month. It happens.

But we will be back, and we will have more to talk about. Just . . . maybe when I'm a little less covered in playa dust.

Embracing Unintended Game Design

2011, July 29th 9:51 AM

I've done a lot of pen-and-paper roleplaying over the years.

I started with Dungeons and Dragons Second Edition, or, more exactly, I started with a horrifyingly botched interpretation of the rules, filtered through my middle-schooler mind. I vaguely recall rolling a d20 for stats and I'm pretty sure we had no idea what spell slots were. Since then I've played three major editions of D&D, three major editions of Shadowrun, had a brief and unfortunate foray into the world of Rifts and a briefer and far more unfortunate foray into a hand-rolled Xanth roleplaying system, and, to be quite honest, spent far more time thinking about roleplaying than I actually did roleplaying.

Anyone who's hung around roleplayers has heard a bunch of the same horror stories. I played this game, the whole damn thing was on rails, we had to read the GM's mind. The GM was a control freak and everything had to happen his way. It was a great game, except that the story always followed the GM's plan, no matter what. If you've played games, you know this GM. You've probably met him, you've probably played in his games, you've probably spent a frustrating hour coming up with clever plans and having them shot down unilaterally.

I used to be that GM. I'll admit it. My Xanth games were the worst example – little more than a thinly veiled excuse for running through the plot of the books, including skipping entire chapters when I couldn't figure out how to shoehorn the player through the *cough* scintillating plotline. My Rifts game was better, albeit only slightly. I had one of my best moments in that game, when the players managed to spy on the enemy encampment and, as what was intended to be a throwaway bit of scenery, I mentioned a huge dragon sleeping off in the corner of the camp. This kicked off about four hours of violent explosive shenanigans that left the camp in ruins. Followed immediately by one of my worst moments when I Deus Ex Machina'ed the entire thing away so I could give a speech. Seriously, Zorba. What the hell were you thinking.

The nice thing about RPGs is that the GM is sitting there, and the GM is a human. So when the players say "fuck that, we're not going into that cave to rescue the Mayor's daughter, that's way too dangerous" the GM can come up with a solution. Maybe they get driven inside. Maybe the mayor offers a bigger reward. Or maybe they just walk away and in the next town they have to deal with people telling stories about the adventurers that ran from a fight. You can improvise, and a good GM will improvise.

You can't really do that with games. When you release a game, that's the game, that's what the player's going to play. If the player doesn't want to go into that cave, well, tough cookies, the plot isn't going to continue until you do.

And that's not really a bad thing. We've only got so much money we can pour into game development. We can't make a game where the player can go into the cave and kill goblins, or the player can go abandon his adventuring lifestyle and become a farmer, or the player can hire mercenaries to go in and clean out the cave and then turn the cave structure into an amusement park serving Goblinburgers and Gnollshakes. We can't make all that stuff fun, we just don't have the developer time. And, for many years, that's where the limit was: you implement a game, the user plays the game, the user beats the game, hooray.

Then we invented multiplayer games and all hell broke loose.

It turns out that human social structures are unbelievably complicated. It turns out that human motivations are deep and multilayered. It turns out that when you have the goal "kill a bunch of monsters, you are a better player if you kill more monsters", and you expect people to go kill monsters independently, some bright person is going to realize that, hey, you can pay people to help him kill monsters, and then he's a better player because he's killing more monsters!

The industry response to this is swift and predictable: They're playing the game wrong. Put them back in their box and tell them to play the game right this time.

And it doesn't work, because we seal up one exit to the box, and then it turns out there's another exit, and the whole thing happens again.

When World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King was released, a player named Athene had a clever strategy to reach level 80 before anyone else. Despite asking the GMs for permission, he got banned for it because he wasn't playing the game right. When World of Warcraft: Cataclysm was released, he tried again, this time succeeding. Wanna guess what will happen when they raise the cap to 90? I'm willing to bet Athene will be there powerleveling to 90.

When someone finds a hole in the rules, our first reaction as game developers isn't "whoa, awesome, they found a new way to play!", it's "We have to stop them, because this is our game and you're not allowed to do that." Which we can do, because it's our world they're playing in, we can just push a button and make them stop doing whatever they're doing. Back on the beaten path, boy. That's where you're meant to be. And the game goes on, and we rest, satisfied that we're the master of our own domain, and that the players are playing the game correctly.

Which goes all to hell when we do something outside our domain.

Example One: Chain World. Jason Rohrer bought a Flash drive and put a copy of Minecraft on it. He gave it to someone, with a single set of rules: Do not copy it. Play the game once, building and creating whatever you wish. When your character dies, pass it on to someone else. These are the rules and these are the only rules.

The rules were broken instantly. Jia Ji was the first person who got it, and he put it on eBay and made the buyer promise to send it to specific people next. The community was outraged. He's playing the game wrong. Then broken again, perhaps – the game may have been destroyed, the game may have moved on, but nobody's saying. The rules lasted exactly as long as it took Jason Rohrer to describe them.

Example Two: Eric Zimmerman's coins. At the most recent GDC, there was a talk, and during that talk, coins were handed out. At the end of the talk, the person with the most coins got to give their own talk. Those were the rules, and the rules were defined by Eric Zimmerman.

Ryan Creighton used social engineering to acquire the entire bag of coins, and the watchers were outraged. He's playing the game wrong. So Eric broke his own rules, and gave the extra talk to someone he felt was more deserving. Then Eric broke his own rules again, and let Ryan talk for ten words. Ryan, of course, broke that rule, and gave a substantially longer talk than ten words.

You make a game. You offer to let someone play the game. They play a different game than you intended. Then you get angry that they're playing the wrong game.

This is a mistake.

When Athene plays World of Warcraft, he's not playing Blizzard's World of Warcraft. He's playing Athene's World of Warcraft. It's a similar game, with some of the same fundamental rules, but with different guidelines. In Blizzard's World of Warcraft, you don't join and drop groups to maximize the amount of experience you gain. In Athene's World of Warcraft, you do. And, critically, these are the same games. Neither game has a rule that says you cannot, or that you must, but in Athene's game, which Athene plays to accomplish Athene's goals, you do.

Jason Rohrer bought a Flash drive to make Jason Rohrer's Chain World. Then he gave it to Jia Ji and Jia Ji turned it into Jia Ji's Chain World. Jason Rohrer invented Jason Rohrer's rules, and Jia Ji invented Jia Ji's rules.

Eric Zimmerman invented a game involving coins, and he made Eric Zimmerman's Coin Game. Then he gave it to a room full of people, and each person invented their own coin game. Many of these were equivalent to Eric Zimmerman's game, but Ryan Creighton's Coin Game was different. You see, Eric Zimmerman's coin game was about collecting coins, and Ryan Creighton's coin game was about collecting coins in a slightly different manner that Eric Zimmerman hadn't thought of.

Jia Ji wasn't following Jason Rohrer's rules, and Ryan Creighton wasn't following Eric Zimmerman's rules. But Jason and Eric had let their games escape, and someone else had found a new way to play it. When they realized that, they tried to bring the game back. No. That's my game. You can't play it like that. You're not playing the game right.

But it wasn't Jason Rohrer's game anymore, and it wasn't Eric Zimmerman's game anymore.

When we make a game, we give it life. We create the rules of its existence. But then we send it out into the world, and other people take the game and change the rules and make it their game. Traditionally, this happened in people's homes, with house rules and tweaks and simple unintended misunderstandings, with people finding a new way to play the game or inventing a strategy that we never considered. But today we make huge multiplayer games. When we let the game go out, we tell people they're allowed to play it, but then we punish them for not following our view of how it should be played. We're telling them to play, then forcing them to follow.

I think this is a mistake. More accurately: I think reflexively doing this is a mistake. With multiplayer games there are certainly situations where someone finds it fun to destroy other people's enjoyment of the game, and that should be taken care of, ideally swiftly. But in a situation where one person has invented a new way to play the game that does not harm others, what's the issue? In a singleplayer game, or a sandbox game, or even a multiplayer game, why, whenever we are confronted with someone who's playing our game in a different manner, is our first instinct to stop them?

We cannot and should not hover over people's shoulders, telling them how to play the game. We should develop games that people want to play, and if they discover a way to play the game that we were not aware of? Maybe that's for the best. Maybe we can learn from that. Maybe we can say, hey, you are not playing the game I invented, but that's cool, and your game looks like fun, how about if I change my game to behave more like your game.

Maybe we need to learn to let go of our toys and let others play with them for a while.

Maybe we'll learn about some new games.

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.

The Digital Game Museum

2011, May 28th 7:30 AM

I've been insanely busy lately. Not because of making my own games, unfortunately, but because I'm involved in starting the Digital Game Museum. We've just come back from Maker Faire (did you know I'm an expo exhibit designer? I certainly didn't) and we've posted the list of our contributors' votes right over here. Over eight hundred votes, folks. That is a lot of votes.

I had to enter them all by hand. :(

In any case I don't think there's a single undeserving game on any of the top lists besides the extreme age brackets, so go check that out and let us know what you think :) I've got a few more posts brewing for Mandible Games, life has just been insanely busy. We'll return to our normal schedule shortly!

Roguelikes: The Misnamed Genre

2011, April 25th 4:47 PM

Recently, I've been playing a game called Dungeon Crawl: Stone Soup. You should play it. It's good.

DCSS is a game about searching a dungeon for a magical McGuffin named The Orb of Zot. You choose a species and a background, get starter gear, and delve into the furthest depths of the unmapped, unexplored, randomly generated, extremely dangerous dungeon complex. There are about a dozen major areas in the world, including The Hive, The Shoals, The Abyss, and Hell itself, plus a large number of minor areas like the Ecumenical Temple and Erinya's Garden, many of which may or may not even exist. Along the way you'll find magical armor, scrolls, wands, and potions, none of which are identified. Putting on an unidentified ring could result in the discovery of a +5 Ring of Slaying (really goddamn good), it could result in "well, now you're wearing a ring, and you still don't know what it does", or it could result in discovering you've just donned a Cursed Ring of Hunger and you're about to starve to death if you can't get rid of it immediately.

Death, in DCSS, is a major event. When you die, that's it. You're done. That character is deleted. There are no save points, there is no reloading. Want to run full speed through the Hall of Blades just to find out what happens? What happens is that you get chopped to bits by the magical weapons filling the Hall of Blades and now you have to start over.

DCSS isn't a unique game. It is, however, possibly the most modern example of its genre, known as Roguelikes. The original game Rogue was released way back in 1980, sporting a text-based interface, randomized items, a randomized dungeon, and permadeath. Rogue inspired a similar game called Hack, which, itself, inspired a game called Nethack, a game notable enough that it occasionally displaces Rogue as the name of the genre. A few years later Angband was developed, then Linley's Dungeon Crawl, which was abandoned and eventually resurrected as Dungeon Crawl: Stone Soup . . . sporting a text-based interface, randomized items, a randomized dungeon, and permadeath.

Those are the big names, at least. The Roguelike genre is very conducive to small projects. Its text-based "graphics" mean that any game developer can write up a little Roguelike of their very own, and the code behind Roguelikes tend to be simple to start with, albeit complicated to continue. There are easily a dozen major Roguelikes still in production, with dozens or perhaps hundreds that have been abandoned over the years. They all follow approximately the same formula: you choose a species and a background, you enter a randomly-generated dungeon with text-based art, you travel deep into the earth, using random unidentified magical items to survive until you find a magical relic which you cart back up to the surface and you win.

Except . . . they don't all follow that formula. They almost do. But not quite.

DCSS, for example, has a graphical mode. Not the prettiest graphics in the world. But it's graphics. So that kind of breaks the formula. And while it's not mandatory to use, DCSS has a Tower Defense mode known as Zot Defense, and a canned hand-made dungeon mode known as Dungeon Sprint. Which aren't really Roguelikes, because they're not about finding that magical relic in a randomly generated dungeon. But they sort of are, because they use all the same items and monsters and behaviors.

There's also Desktop Dungeons, which breaks the formula further. Most Roguelikes take many hours to beat, even if you know what you're doing. Desktop Dungeons takes about fifteen minutes per run. And it's got graphics – in fact, it has mandatory graphics. And sound. And there's no such thing as a cursed or unidentified item. But it's still a Roguelike. Sort of.

And there's Dwarf Fortress, which . . . well, it's got ASCII art. And randomly generated levels. That's all normal. But instead of controlling an adventurer, you control an entire town of dwarves, mining out a civilization into a cliff side or a convenient hill (or the frozen tundra, if you're looking for a challenge). And you're not trying to find a magical artifact. You're just trying to survive. Or maybe you're trying to make the world's largest elephant combat pit. Or maybe you're trying to build a digital computer out of pipes and gears and dwarves. It's not really a Roguelike. But it's within a stone's throw.

100 Rogues is an iPhone game, graphics and all. ADOM has a world map and multiple dungeons. Spelunky is a sidescroller action game. Toejam and Earl is about a pair of aliens repairing a crash-landed spaceship in order to go back home. There are so many exceptions, so many alternatives, so many branches, so many cases where people can't decide if a game is a roguelike or not, that I can only come to one conclusion:

The term "Roguelike" is not a well-defined term.

We've been trying to define "Roguelikes" based on what the game includes. Deep dungeons, random levels, cursed artifacts. But non-game genres aren't define that way. Imagine trying to divvy up movie genres based on their components. This movie has a car, so it must be a car movie. No, but wait, it has guns also! It must be a guns movie! No, actually, it's "The Godfather", and it's a drama movie. Or maybe it's a crime movie, or a thriller, or even a Mafia movie. But it contains cars and guns, and it's about drama and the Mafia.

Roguelikes aren't about dungeons. They're not about text-based graphics, or random artifacts, or permadeath.

Roguelikes are about complexity.

Roguelikes are about handing you a set of pieces. Roguelikes say, hey, these simple parts, when put together in this fashion, will have this obvious effect. And then they hand you more pieces, and you get to figure out the best way to combine those pieces.

Roguelikes are about using an unpredictable toolkit with complex interactions in order to overcome unpredictable challenges.

For example, there's an item in DCSS known as the Scroll of Immolation. When you read it, it blows up in your hands. Sounds kind of crappy, right? Now let's imagine you're wearing a bunch of fire resist gear, and you're in the Ice Dungeon, and you're being swarmed by a bunch of small ice critters. Read scroll, scroll blows up, you're immune, monsters aren't. Of course, this isn't the kind of thing you can plan for. You might not have that scroll. Chances are good you won't have a bunch of fire resist gear in the Ice Cave. And you're more likely to be attacked by a few big monsters than swarmed by small monsters. So what I've just described is not likely to be useful.

But DCSS contains dozens, if not hundreds, if not thousands of tricks you can use, and in any serious game you'll be close to death many times. If you can't find a good trick to survive, you'll die. The way to beat a Roguelike isn't to memorize all the tricks, it's to learn how to come up with ideas on the fly.

In Dwarf Fortress, your game will depend partially on what natural resources are available, and in what quantities. You can't always determine this early on in the game. You might reach the mid-game and run out of iron. Whoops. Time to find more iron, or learn to do without. In Desktop Dungeons, you never know quite which monsters you'll run into, which deities will be available, which spells and items you can get ahold of. These aren't traditional Roguelike games, but the core mechanic, the critical part that makes them feel Roguelikey, is preserved perfectly.

Once we acknowledge this potential new definition of Roguelikes, we start seeing it crop up in surprising places. Civilization 5 has a military that relies on finding certain important resources in order to build the best units. If you're lucky enough to find a lot of them, you might change your strategy to lean towards military conquest. If you find few of them, you might take a more defensive position, or use units that don't require iron or horses. Dominions 3, an excellent but obscure multiplayer turn-based strategy, is thoroughly laced with this – finding an important magical site, or a powerful recruitable independent mage, can change your entire long-term strategy if you're clever enough to recognize it. And here's the most unlikely comparison you'll hear in a while – Super Smash Bros Brawl multiplayer is like a Roguelike! A lot of the multiplayer strategy is seeing special items quickly and coming up with a good way to use them, or seeing what's being used against you and learning how to counter it. Compare a SSBB Pokeball and an unidentified Nethack potion or scroll. Unpredictable toolkit, unpredictable challenges.

And of course, Nieuwe Aarde, the game I've been putting more work into, is intended to be a Roguelike by this definition. I've been putting a ton of thought into how to make it more Roguelikeish – right now it frankly does a very bad job of being a Roguelike – and I think I have good ideas. Once I have the time, you'll be seeing more on this front.

There's only one problem. The word "Roguelike" is already taken. And the people who make Roguelikes would probably be a bit peeved by my claim that Super Smash Bros Brawl is a Roguelike. And worst of all, Rogue itself only has this property to a limited extent – there aren't many items, there aren't many abilities, there aren't multiple races or multiple character classes. So I think it's time to coin a new term . . . but I've had no luck coming up with a good term. My best option so far is "Highly Emergent Games", which sounds like a phrase you'd hear coming out of Zynga. Not ideal.

________ are about using an unpredictable toolkit with complex interactions in order to overcome unpredictable challenges.

I've defined a new genre of game. What do you think it should be called?