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Default Powers in Discovery

May 23rd, 2005 by Troy Goodfellow · 7 Comments · Design, History

It’s funny how strategy games tend to follow each other as if there are default settings for what these virtual worlds are supposed to look like. I’ve already mentioned how the trebuchet moved from an obscure medieval weapon to being something that strategy gamers expect. Age of Empires II made this siege device a household word.

With Age of Empires III only six months away, it is a good time to take note of how it too is using the default understanding of what distinguished the major colonial powers from each other.

The first game to distinguish the great European powers of the Age of Exploration was Sid Meier’s Colonization, a popular strategy title that never reached brilliance, but was certainly enjoyable. In the New World of colonization, the four European powers had four different advantages to give them an edge over their rivals. Riven by religious strife, England produced immigrants for the colonies at a faster rate. The French got along better with the Natives and could expect more peaceful relations. The Spanish were conquerors and so they got an attack bonus when attacking a Native village. The Dutch had the early commercial advantage of a second ship and more stable prices at the home port.

So, the template was set. The English are better colonizers, the French and Indians get along better, the Spanish kill people more efficiently and the Dutch are business geniuses.

Though it is hard to point to conclusive evidence that game designers take their ideas from other people, Interplay’s Conquest of the New World Deluxe Edition implemented similar distinctions between the major powers, even throwing Portugal and a native race into the mix.

England gets ship and artillery bonuses – different from Colonization.

France gets better relations with natives – the same.

Natives get more movement and more gold.

Holland collects interest on gold mines – more commercial stuff.

Portugal gets movement bonuses – probably reflecting early exploration.

Spain gets better infantry and better explorers – a military bonus, but most of the powers get some sort of military bonus.

So we have some similarities and some differences. Most of the cultures get some military bonus of some sort, so Spain isn’t too special except for that it applies to the plentiful infantry. England’s naval bonus makes sense. France is, by now, firmly pegged as the friend of the Indians and the Dutch like money.

What will we have in Age of Empires III? The May issue of Computer Games Magazine had a thorough preview in which some of the distinctions were laid out. The English get a new citizen with every house – back to the big populations of Colonization. The French get along better with the Indians – again. The Dutch can build a special commercial building. The Portuguese start with two town center building units. The Spanish get more frequent shipments from home. A new culture – the Germans – can recruit mercenaries more easily.

The replication of many of these powers and distinctions in games from three different developers that cover the same era is quite astonishing. If you compare the Romans and Greeks in Age of Empires and Rise of Nations, you will find fewer similarites I bet.

This fact implies that there is an understanding of the differences between most of the European colonial powers in America. Take the French native relations bonus. Given the relatively limited French colonization in the Americas (they claimed a lot of land, but didn’t settle much of it) the lack of sustained French-Native warfare shouldn’t be surprising. But beyond the French alliance with the Huron, it is hard to come up with strong evidence that the French and Natives got along better as a matter of policy.

Similarly, the Dutch commercial empire so strongly reflected in these games subsumes the Dutch wars of conquest in Asia. The impression of the Dutch as money smart traders is likely reinforced by English perception of The Netherlands as more of an economic than military threat like France or Spain.

Interestingly, the Spanish seem to be a mystery for game designers. They get a strong military bonus versus natives in Colonization, a general infantry bonus in Conquest of the New World and will be more a standard default power in AoE3. They had the largest empire in the New World, intermarried with natives, exacted slave labor, engaged in extensive missionary activity and yet this great power comes away as undistinctive.

I wonder if the so-called “Black Legend” of Spanish imperialism – the widespread belief that the Spanish were more cruel and vicious to the conquered people of America than other powers – has something to do with the reluctance to decisively label the Spanish. Game developers tend to resist ascribing morally objectionable powers to historic empires, for very understandable reasons. But, aside from Colonization, no game maker who has dealt with this period seems to recognize that we remember Cortez and Pizarro for a reason.

If I’ve forgotten any game that addresses these issues or you want to contribute your own thoughts on this type of historic stereotyping, please weigh in.


7 Comments so far ↓

  • Paul Stephanouk

    Great post!

    RTS games have a lot of systems in common so it’s not a huge surprise that, given a limited number of game systems (“levers”), many “historical” RTS nations come out similar. Some nations have iconic traits that strongly speak to particualar game systems. Others are not so easy to place in the game. If you’re lucky you can invent new systems to accomidate the tougher fits. I’m here to tell you that’s not always easy or even an option.

    You hit a nail on the head with your Spanish observations. They were hands down the most difficult for us to set up in RoN. It seemed like many of the power sets we tried were alternatly lame or crushingly effective. The game levers we felt spoke most to our idea of the Spanish didn’t have much granularity in the settings. Consequently it was a lot of work to get them to reach a reasonable balance AND just feel right.

    AoE vs. RoN Romans as an example of two games having different takes on a nation. The difference you observe exists because we had a game system to play with that AoE didn’t – national borders. We had a different tool to iconify the Romans so they ended up with the difference. Contrary to what people may think, we actually try hard to make all nations differnet from other RTS games. That’s sometimes a difficult task when you’re dealing with similar game systems and iconic national attributes that you perceive players are expecting. Unless you’ve got a good reason AND something better for the players, you’d better give the British cool archer units. :)

    Getting the nations represented in RoN was a heck of a lot of work but also a TON of fun. It’s an art that mixes history, game design, and iconic communication. I’ve not talked to other historical RTS designers on this point but I wouldn’t be the least surprised to hear them echo the “delima of the Spanish.” Let me leave you with this thought: If we (RTS designers) are guilty of historic stereotyping in our games it’s not because we have some sort of agenda. It’s probably because we’ve not done a good enough job of thinking up cool game systems to manifest the differences.

  • Anonymous

    I can think of two games that have a more realistic approach to the relative strengths of the colonizing powers. They are not mainstream titles like Colonization and newer RTS games though. The ancient title Gold of the Americas has a system of home support that gave the Portuguese/Spanish a head start followed by a slowdown, and allowed England/France to catch up later. In recent years Europa Universalis II gives each nation a starting policy (similar to what is described in this post) that can be modified gradually, giving some sort of leeway in terms of ahistorical play. These games also stand out in that they deal with slavery and to some extent other sensitive moral issues.

  • Anonymous

    Don’t forget the big connection between Civilization and Age of Empires–Bruce Shelley. And certainly Brian Reynolds was influenced by his work on Civilization and Colonization.

    But ultimately, these aren’t purely historical games and some choices are made for purely balance or gameplay reasons. The fact that history allows some connection is really a plus.

  • Troy Goodfellow

    Last comment first: The original civ had no special powers at all. In fact, aside from the leaders, each was identical. Though sometimes the Babylonians got an extra settler.

    Second last comment: The first EU had even more hardcoded differences. The Portuguese could explore without an explorer and the English had cheaper ships. EU2 starts with domestic distinctions, but they all go away once the player molds the country to his own whims. Gold of the Americas is so long ago that I forgot all about it.

    Paul: Welcome to the blog. Love your work. One of the few good things about EE2 is that it made me appreciate RoN so much more. I see what you mean about iconic national attributes, and they make a sort of sense on the surface. But they also reinforce ideas people have about countries. The Dutch are always rich. The French like Indians. The Chinese come in billions.

    But so long as people expect differences between the civs (and it is safe to say that this will likely be the case for some time), designers will go to the tried and true. If you are lucky, you get to introduce people to the trade empire of Nubia. Otherwise you just have a bunch of Robin Hoods – again.

  • Paul Stephanouk

    Sometimes you even end up with Aztecs riding horses. :)

    Thanks for the warm welcome. Been digging this blog for a while now. I loves me some RSS. Glad to have a chance to throw .02 into the conversation.

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